What is the Samsung Galaxy S5?
The Galaxy S5 is Samsung's flagship phone for 2014 and more than 10 million units were shifted in its first month on sale. Is it a success? Certainly in terms of sales figures it's right up there.
Should we get carried away by sales numbers alone? A phone should stand on its merits and the Galaxy S5 has made some important improvements to certain key areas over the Galaxy S4. The screen and camera are significantly better than those on last year's model.
In the months it's been on sale the Galaxy S5 has also had some price drops. These days you can get a SIM-free Galaxy S5 for around £460. That's still a fair wodge of cash, but is a lot less than the £600 RRP the Galaxy S5 first retailed for. It’s a little cheaper than its biggest rivals, the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2, although you can get the similarly specced LG G3 for the same money.
The Galaxy S5 now comes with waterproofing and a fingerprint scanner, although both have their downsides. The fingerprint scanner, for example, is nowhere near as easy to use as Apples TouchID on the iPhone 5S.
There's no question that the Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of the best phones of the year, but competition is a lot stiffer these days, especially with the iPhone 6 that will have a screen closer to the S5's in size. We start the review by comparing to the best of the rest.
Samsung Galaxy S5 tips, tricks, and hidden features explained
Most common problems with Samsung Galaxy S5, and how to solve them
Galaxy S5 Compared to LG G3
The latest phone to join the exclusive best phones of 2014 is the LG G3 and it certainly gives the Galaxy S5 some serious competition.
Just like the Galaxy S5 this is a plastic phone but a thin metallic film on the back cover makes it look and feel a lot slicker than the Samsung. LG have thought a lot about the design and ergonomics of the phone which has led to the power and volume buttons being situated at the back. It might sound mad but you quickly get used to it and it trumps the button locations of the S5 in terms of ease of use.
Both phones pack almost identical specs in terms of processors but the LG G3 has a higher resolution screen than the Galaxy S5. You shouldn't be influenced by that too much, though. The Galaxy S5's display is still super-sharp and has much better black levels.
It's pretty even when it comes to cameras too. The Galaxy S5 captures more detail, but the laser focusing on the LG means it's a lot quicker at snapping in low-light conditions.
Final things to consider is that the Galaxy S5 has marginally better battery life and is water resistant.
Galaxy S5 Compared to HTC One M8
There can be no argument that the HTC One M8 looks and feels a lot better than the Galaxy S5. The metal body and attractive design meand there little contest. Parts of the M8's interface also look and feel a bit better, particularly since not every part of the S5’s TouchWiz interface is that well designed.
The Galaxy S5 might lose out in the looks and design department but it wins in other core elements of the phone – the screen and camera. The OLED display is better in virtually every respect, thanks to Samsung’s fine-tuning of the tech behind it. The HTC One M8 screen isn’t bad, but the S5 really has a best-in-class display.
We also think the S5 camera is better. It’s more reliable and produces far more detailed photos. That said, while both phones have a blurring out effect for portraits and the like, the HTC One M8’s version of it is loads better.
Galaxy S5 Compared to Sony Xperia Z2
The Xperia Z2 is a little more stylish than the Galaxy S5, but the gap in design isn't quite as wide as it is with the HTC.
Its glass-on-metal look is a bit less attention grabbing, and much closer in look to its predecessor than the S5, but that slim and severe Xperia look is pretty strong.
The Xperia also offers a bigger battery and slightly better waterproofing. It is certified to withstand water jets and being submerged in water for longer than the S5. However, for most people that’s not really an effective upgrade – who deliberately dunks their phone in water for more than half an hour?
These phones use the same core processor too – but the S5 is clocked a little faster – and the Xperia Z2 has more RAM, 3GB to the Samsung's 2GB. This should in theory make it slightly better at multitasking. The Xperia also has a higher-resolution camera, and DXOMark rates it as the highest-quality sensor in a mobile although the S5 more than holds its own in this department. However, the Galaxy S5 screen still has the edge for pure image quality.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Design
Samsung has done its best to make the Galaxy S5 look quite different from the S4. It has a dimpled back, while the Galaxy S4 is smooth and glossy. There is one thing that brings the two phones together, though.
Where the Sony Xperia Z2 and HTC One M8 try to use expensive feeling, or looking, materials throughout, the Galaxy S5 is almost entirely plastic. And it is not plastic that's happy to look like what it is. The sides of the phone are trimmed with metallic plastic that an onlooker might mistake for metal. But the feel of plastic is unmistakeable in-hand.
The new-design sides are ribbed too, which looks worse than the flat style of the S4. The look is not a wholesale improvement.
The in-hand feel is better, though. It has a rather unusual, slightly soft-touch textured and pitted finish. This ensures you won't mistake the Galaxy S5 for any other phone one the market (unless another phone maker nicks this style), but the phone is nowhere near as good-looking as the HTC One M8.
Functionally this back cover style is perfectly fine, though. It won't leave your purring at the expensive feel of the expensive phone you just bought, but it is grippy and has a soft-touch finish that feels a bit better than Samsung's old glossy plastic mobiles. The finish is not consistent across the phone's colours, though - the white Galaxy S5 feels a lot cheaper and less 'soft' than the black version, for example.
Samsung is likely to offer the Galaxy S5 in a whole rainbow of colours before the phone slips into obsolescence in 2015-2016, but at launch there are four shades to choose from. We're looking at the black version, which is actually a very dark grey, and the other options are blue, gold and white.
Picking a colour is naturally a personal preference, but having seen them all close-up, gold seems to be the dud. Where Apple and HTC have successfully judged their recent gold models, using a fairly muted 'Champagne' shade, Samsung's has the bling'y vibrance of a £10 plastic handbag.
The dimensions of the Galaxy S5 are, as is common for Samsung flagships, impressive. It's just 8.1mm thick and despite having a slightly larger screen and a load more tech inside, it's just a couple of millimeters wider than the Galaxy S4. The screen bezel isn't quite as skinny as the LG G2's, but Samsung has put some effort into making such a large screen reasonably easy to use.
The Galaxy S5's power button sits on its right side, in reach of your thumb, and the combo of thin body and reasonable phone width play their part in making the phone easy to deal with. However, as with every 5-inch screen phone, reaching from one end of the screen to the other with a thumb just isn't going to happen. If you're thinking of upgrading from an iPhone, you must have a feel first-hand before buying.
There's also an unfortunate knock-on effect of Samsung's dedication to making slim phones. The camera lens housing sticks out from the rest of the back by around 0.5-1mm, making it more prone to scratches than a flush one. The Galaxy S4 has this kind of lens arrangement roo. In this case it's a practical issue caused by having to fit in a 6-element lens camera system into a 8.1mm body, and that's behind a screen and top glass layer too.
Like the previous Galaxy S phones, the Galaxy S5 uses an ultra-thin removable plastic back cover that hides a microSD memory card slot supporting cards up to 128GB. There are 16GB and 32GB versions of the phone, and the 16GB edition will be by far the most common in the UK.
Samsung has also packed a bunch of new hardware features into the Galaxy S5. The ones we'll deal with in this section of the review are the water resistance, the fingerprint scanner and the heart rate sensor.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Water Resistance
The Galaxy S5's water resistance works just as it does on other recent water resistant phones. There are rubber seals on the plastic cover and on the flap that sits over the USB port on the bottom. This is one of the few phones to use an oversized micro USB 3.0 socket, also seen in a few other Samsung phones including the Galaxy Note 3, and it makes the bottom flap fairly large.
Crucial to the convenience of the water resistant design, the headphone jack doesn't need a flap as it's coated internally to avoid letting any water in,
Samsung has managed to add water resistance without any obvious increase in the bulk of phone, and after charging the phone throws up a reminder to close the flap – which is handy (but not dismissable as far as we can tell, and therefore sure to become annoying).
However, there are some slight concerns about the longevity of these ultra-slimline waterproofing systems. The waterproof rubber border is less than a millimeter thick, and feels very slight. It may not last for ever. We like to think of these phones' waterpoofing as a form of insurance, not an excuse to drop your phone in your pint at every opportunity.
The actual specification of the Galaxy S5's water resistance is IP67. This means the phone is impervious to dust and can be submerged in water for up to half an hour. This is not quite as good as the IP55 and IP58 ratings of the waterproof Xperia Z2. That phone is certified to stay underwater for longer and withstand water jets. The difference won't matter for most people, but the key point is that the Galaxy S5 is 'water resistant' while the Z2 is genuinely waterproof.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Fingerprint Scanner
Samsung's new fingerprint scanner is more interesting. We've seen a few different fingerprint scanners in mobiles over the last 12 months. The iPhone 5S's TouchID is a great success, the HTC One Max's rear scanner a flop.
The Galaxy S5 sits in a similar position to the iPhone scanner, but in use feels a little more like the HTC One Max one.
Rather than resting your finger over the button, as with an iPhone 5S, you swipe a finger over it. The sensor sits under the central select button, but you need to swipe over the very bottom of the touchscreen too as there's an element under the screen that activates the scanner.
You can teach the Galaxy S5 up to three fingers, letting multiple people get on-board.
Our team has had mixed experiences with the fingerprint sensor, but I didn't find it particularly easy to use. A swipe-based mechanism like this requires quite an exact, smooth movement, and this is at odds with the casual, care-free way most of us use our phones. Compared with the iPhone 5S TouchID sensor, it's a bit of a pain.
To call upon a metaphor, where the TouchID sensor asks you to stand still, the S5 scanner demands you walk in a dead straight line. And that's fine at times, but not when you're in a rush, have just woken up or are inebriated and desperate to find out when the last train home leaves.
After the Galaxy S5 has failed to recognise your fingerprint three times, you're booted out to a more traditional password. And I had to use this password more often than not for the first few days. The performance boosted a little after the scanner was recalibrated a few times, but at best the hit rate was about 50 per cent.
If you want to do more research on the fingerprint sensor, it's based on Synaptics Natural ID technology.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Heart Rate Sensor
Perhaps the most conspicuous of the new hardware elements is the dedicated heart rate sensor, because it adds new sensors to the LED flash area on the back of the phone. The camera area on the pack looks positively gadget-packed now.
This is the first phone to use a dedicated heart rate sensor, but it uses fairly familiar technology. It lights-up your finger with a red/IR light, and monitors the visual changes caused by the circulation of your blood.
It works well, and takes about eight seconds, but there are two obvious questions – is it actually useful, and can you get this functionality elsewhere? At present, you can only use the Galaxy S5's heart rate sensor in the S Health app (although it appears to be part of the Samsung Bluetooth LE SDK, so should be able to be used in third-party apps), where it makes a graph of your previous results.
It will come in handy for measuring your resting heart rate, which is a reasonable indicator of general fitness levels. But it's not much cop for mid-exercise readings, where it would be of more use. Quite simply, holding your finger on the back of the Galaxy S5 while running is not a good idea. For that you really want a wrist-worm device like the Galaxy Fit.
In truth, you can already get a very similar experience with most other Android phones (and iPhones) too. Apps like Runtastic Heart Rate use your phone's LED flash and camera sensor in much the same way. And with the HTC One M8, our tests showed they provide similar results in a similar time frame.
The Galaxy S5 heart rate sensor is less interesting than it initially appears.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Why all the extras?
We're not huge fans of the heart rate sensor or the fingerprint scanner. The waterproofing deserves a nod, but why has Samsung put such a focus on these hardware 'extras' this year?
It becomes obvious when you look at the phone's other specs. Smartphones have plateau'd technologically – it might be temporary, but it affects all the early 2014 flagships. Samsung can't fit in a much larger screen without affecting how it feels to use, the screen is still at 1080p resolution and the Snapdragon 801 processor used here isn't that much more powerful or advanced than the Snapdragon 800 used in some of last year's phones.
Samsung clearly felt the need to put conspicuously 'new' hardware in the Galaxy S5. And some of it is not that good. Yet. This need to separate the Galaxy S5 from the Galaxy S4 in obvious ways also helps to explain slightly odd pitted finish.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Internal Speaker
We would gladly trade away most of these supposed hardware innovations for a better internal speaker. But this is something that – once more – has been relatively neglected by Samsung.
Sound pipes out of a single grille under the backplate, and uses the limited internal area between the outer parts of the cover and the zone blocked off by the rubber seals to somewhat reinforce the sound (to act as a speaker enclosure of sorts).
We have heard worse speakers, and the Galaxy S5 can handle its own top volume without distorting significantly. But the sound is pretty tinny and bass-free. Coming from reviewing the HTC One M8 – which has relatively chunky-sounding stereo speakers – it's a depressing step down. And we'd wager only those with health-themed OCD would prefer a very limited-use heart rate sensor to a decent set of speakers.
The speaker also causes fairly severe vibration in the lower part of the phone's rear. It's the result of essentially using the outer casing as a speaker enclosure, and it is a bit annoying.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Screen
At first glance the Galaxy S5 display doesn't seem to be much better than that of the Galaxy S4. At 5.1 inches it's just 0.1 inches larger than its predecessor, it uses the same 1080p resolution, the same Gorilla Glass 3 top layer and the same Super AMOLED panel type.
But it's really quite fantastic in many respects.
Since the wildly oversaturated Galaxy S3, Samsung has put a lot of effort into working on the colour calibration of its OLED screens. And it pays off here.
Samsung's obsession with packing in features is also a bonus, as you get to choose the character of the Galaxy S5's screen. As in recent top-rung Samsung phones, you can pick between a bunch of screen profiles, and they're more effective than ever.
Dynamic mode gives you that oversaturated, larger-than life look that many people associate with a Galaxy S phone. It makes the interface pop and look extremely vibrant, but is not good for watching videos (overcooking of the reds in people's faces is the main issue).
The Standard, Professional Photo and Cinema modes see a gradual stepping-down of colour vibrancy, hitting a good level of accuracy with the last two. Putting the effort to get these modes right should earn Samsung some real kudos here, but we're glad it hasn't enforced accuracy either (not that we'd ever expect that from Samsung).
Just as some people think reference-grade plasma TVs look dull and boring next to bright LCD TVs, some will love the dazzling look of the Dynamic mode's colours. It does make the interface look great, if nothing else.
There's also an adaptive mode, which alters the screen tone in-line with the app you use. However, it doesn't work with all apps so perhaps you're better off picking one of the consistent modes. We'd suggest avoiding Dynamic, but there's no accounting for taste.
As we expect from a Super AMOLED panel, contrast and black level are excellent in the Galaxy S5. Its blacks are far more impressive than the HTC One M8's, although you will need to be in a darkened room to appreciate this. Top phones of the last 12 months almost universally have excellent screens. Put the phones in a dark room, though, and the diffference between OLED and LCD is immediately apparent.
On another more OLED-related note, we're glad to report there's none of the odd blue tint that affects older Galaxy S phone screens when viewed from a horizontal angle. Viewing angles are superb, with perhaps just a hint of colour shift at certain angles – but nothing 95 per cent of people could notice.
There's one lingering point to criticise, and it's something we're only including for the sake of completeness. Look up close and there is a tiny, tiny bit of fuzziness in areas of block white. This is a result of Samsung's continued use of a PenTile array screen.
In the Galaxy S5, the phone's pixels are made up of four sub-pixels – two green, one blue and one red. Most screens use three. They're arranged in a diamond shape, and this has a less tight regularity, with more 'gap' in-between than you get with a more traditional RGB sub-pixel LCD phone like the HTC One M8.
In devices with much lower pixel density displays, like the Galaxy Tab Pro 12.2, using a PenTile layout can have serious effects on the perception of sharpness. But here you really have to try to see it. This remains a seriously sharp screen.
Screen brightness is impressive, able to mitigate the high reflectivity of the top Gorilla Glass 3 layer. However, it is a bit less bright than the top LCD-based phone screens in normal conditions. Side-by side, you can clearly see that the maximum brightness settings of the HTC One M8 and iPhone 5S appear a bit brighter in daylight. The Galaxy S5 wipes the floor with the competition at night-time, though.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Video and Music
Having such a large, bold screen makes the Galaxy S5 an obvious choice as a mobile video player. And Samsung has a history of packing-in much better-than-average video capabilities into its phones.
True to form, the phone includes a Samsung-made video player application. It's simple, but unlike the Google Movies app, it is there to let you play your own videos, not ones you buy or stream from Google, Samsung or anyone else.
Format support isn't quite as up-to-date as we would have expected from a Samsung phone of a few years ago, though. MKV, DivX and Xvid files all play fine, but the Galaxy S5 does not support AC3 audio fresh out of the box.
This is an extremely common audio format for movies distributed online. Its omission could be seen as an anti-piracy move by Samsung, especially when it is/was supported by the Galaxy S4. But if so, it's one that's easy to circumvent with the help of a third-party app that offers software decoding of audio/video streams. MX Player is an Android favourite.
Aside from AC3, audio support is fair, with FLAC and Vorbis included along the various types of AAC, WMA and MP3. As with video, real audio enthusiasts will need to call upon a third-party app (for APE support and so on), but if you're that far down the rabbit hole, you probably have a favourite app already anyway.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Android 4.4 and TouchWiz
The Galaxy S5 runs Android 4.4 KitKat and a new version of the TouchWiz interface. It sees Samsung struggle with two conflicted priorities.
Samsung knows that the trend is currently towards simpler, more visually intuitive interfaces, but ever since the Galaxy S series began, one of its selling points has been that its phones pack-in more features than the competition. The new version of TouchWiz is a result of these clashing approaches.
On the side of simplicity, fewer apps and features come pre-installed. Things like S Translator and WatchOn are no longer jammed in. Instead, you grab them – if you want – for free from the Samsung apps portal. The phone's apps menu is dominated by Google's app suite, rather than conspicuously Samsung-branded apps.
Samsung still supplies a few of its own utilies such as a barebones note-taker, the S Planner Calendar and a Samsung browser. But to call these bloat would just be unkind. They're real essentials.
There's just a handful of apps some might find extraneous this time. Here's what you get:
ChatONA long-standing Samsung chat app. It works just like WhatsApp and also lets you have video chats.
You can chat with single friends or a group within a chat, and as it works over your Wi-Fi or mobile internet rather than SMS, there's no additional cost involved.
S HealthSamsung needed to pre-install this one to justify the incorporation of a heart rate sensor. It's a fitness-tracking app, and one we've seen before in other Samsung phones. It offers a pedometer and proper exercise tracking for walkers, runners, hikers and cyclists, including GPS tracking and mapping.
It does smack a little of Samsung trying to do a little too much itself, though. For example, we imagine many people will want to do little more than see how many steps they take a day. The HTC One M8's Fitbit app does this in a much clearer, more matter-of-fact way than Samsung, which has over-produced the S Health app with it use of heavy visuals. But, hey, it is free.
S VoiceThis is Samsung's Siri equivalent, and lets you do things like open apps, call people and make calendar events. However, it's not quite on-par with Google Now or the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana in terms of how advanced it is. And its voice synthesis isn't top-notch either.
Google Now comes pre-installed on the phone, and we'd recommend using that as your digital assistant rather than S Voice. Given how much focus Samsung has given S Voice in the past, though, we're not surprised it lingers on.
Smart RemoteCo-opting some of the features found in the Galaxy S4's WatchOn app, Smart Remote lets you set reminders about TV shows you like, and lets the Galaxy S5 act as a universal remote.
As with any universal remote, setting the thing up can be a bit of a pain, but it does work. We tried it with a Pioneer TV and Onkyo receiver and were up and running within a few minutes (later-discovered mis-mappings not considered.)
The Galaxy S5 now has fewer pre-installed apps than the HTC One M8.
As well as cutting down on the number of pre-installed apps, several elements of TouchWiz have been redesigned. The apps and widgets headers of the apps menu in the Galaxy S4 have gone. Like the Nexus 5, all you'll find on the apps menu are apps. And you can bung the ones you don't want to use in folders, or 'hide' them completely.
It's not hard to make the Galaxy S5's apps menu look very clean.
Your basic home screens are much the same as they were in the Galaxy S4, but now there's also a My Magazine screen accessed by flicking left-to-right from your left-most home screen. My Magazine is a full-screen customised front-end for news popular app Flipboard.
The way it works is you choose a bunch of categories that span new topics and social networks, and each of these gets one entry on your My Magazine home screen. You might see a tech story, an arts/cultre story and a recent Tweet. Tap on these and you'll get more topics, which can can flick through sequentially.
It's probably the best-looking part of the Samsung Galaxy S5 interface (not least because Samsung didn't really make it), but the way it works isn't 100 per cent perfect for its position right at the front of the phone. A home screen updater like this should be happy with 10 seconds of your time, but My Magazine wants five minutes, at least.
That's not to say it's not good, but it is not for everyone. We imagine the latest HTC BlinkFeed – which is a much more quick-fire home screen feed – will be used by a wider audience.
Aside from My Magazine, which feels like a module plugged-into TouchWiz, Samsung has tried to give the Galaxy S5 interface more visual coherence than before. The new thematic glue is colourful circles.
These circles make up the toggles in the drop-down notifications bar and the dozens of options in the Settings menu. Various elements do look better this time around, but true style still eludes Samsung.
This is still not a particularly good-looking UI without tweaks and, despite Samsung's best efforts, it continues to lack a little visual cohesion. It's not a huge issue unless you really care about the software aesthetics of your phone. But now that the Galaxy S series alone has sold more than 200 million phones, it feels like it deserves a ground-up redesign rather than just another facelift in a long series of semi-successful cosmetic procedures.
To check that this wasn't a result of having used too many version of TouchWiz over the years, we tried out the Nexus 5 Google Experience UI on the Galaxy S5 (we'll be back with how to do this soon in our upcoming tips and tricks article) and found that it does indeed have a more characteristic, confident look. And that interface is basically newborn (if based on the 'standard' Android UI).
The one other common criticism of TouchWiz is that it is a major performance drain. And this is something we've experienced first-hand recently in Samsung's Tab tablets like the Note Pro 12.2.
TouchWiz still lacks the immediacy of vanilla Android or just about any Windows Phone, but we didn't experience any serious slow-down. At its worst, TouchWiz can cause glitchy movements when just flicking through app menu screens, but there's nothing so obvious here. TouchWiz is still a little slow at times, though. In our testing it was occasional – the most common issue being the contents of menus taking a fraction of a second to actually show up.
We experienced just one cash during testing, which happened when editing an image in the photo gallery. But that's not bad going – to any cocky iPhone owners out there, your apps do crash, you're just not told about it.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Multi Window, Air View
As well as a few extra apps, TouchWiz provides a few Samsung-specific ways to interface with the Galaxy S5. It is not all new, but plenty worth mentioning regardless.
Multi Window is Samsung's classic multi-tasking mode. You hold down on the back soft key to bring up the Multi Window bar, from which you can drag two apps to run on-screen at once.
It works pretty well, and lets you do things like take notes while reading the web, chat on WhatsApp while reading emails or open two browsers at once. It is not an invasive feature either – with the Multi Window bar hidden you can pretend it's not part of the Galaxy S5 at all.
Air View returns, having made its debut in the Galaxy S4. The feature lets you bring up previews of certain info by hovering a finger over the screen. As standard it's switched off, as it has the potential to be quite invasive and annoying. But it lets you preview pictures in the gallery, preview events in the S Planner calendar app and preview frames in videos when fast forwarding in the Samsung video player app. It can also be used as a kind of predictive system when typing out phone numbers.
There are lots of other minor features like these, including a Private Mode to hide certain videos, photos and other files from the eyes of others. As ever, there is an awful lot of features to find in the S5 if you scratch at the phone's surface. Next, we'll look a little deeper into the technical aspects of the hardware that powers the Samsung Galaxy S5.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Performance and Hardware
At launch the Samsung Galaxy S5 is among the most powerful phones ever made. It uses the Snapdragon 801 processor, which is the upgraded version of the Snapdragon 800 chipset we saw in top-end phones of late 2013 like the LG G2.
The Galaxy S5's particular iteration is a 2.5GHz quad-core model, clocked 200MHz faster than the Snapdragon 801 version we'll see in the UK versions of the Sony Xperia Z2 and HTC One M8. As king of the Android castle, it's no great surprise that Samsung has done its best to keep onto its title with this bit of tech Top Trump-ery.
In practice this won't make a great deal of difference, though, and the Sony Xperia Z2 has another hardware advantage anyway. The Z2 has 3GB of RAM, the Galaxy S5 2GB. After Samsung plugged 3GB into the Galaxy Note 3, this was a little surprising. But we imagine it was a result of fairly intensive research into the real-world benefits versus the additional hardware cost. Well, hopefully.
After seeing relatively good day-to-day performance – for a TouchWiz phone – we gave the Galaxy S5 some more objective tests. In this time of benchmark duping by just about every phone-maker out there, exact benchmark results should be viewed with slight scpeticism. But they can tell us whether a phone is performing as it should.
In 3DMark with the Unlimited Ice Storm test, the Galaxy S5 scores 18,600. That's a little below the HTC One M8's score, but with HTC already having admitted to fiddling benchmarks with the phone, we're loath to come to any damning conclusions with this data.
In Geekbench 3, the phone scores 2,908 points. This is slightly higher than the HTC One M8's score (2,840). This makes sense as it is a largely CPU-based benchmark, and the Galaxy S5 is after all 200MHz faster than the UK version of the M8.
If we were to do down the Galaxy S5's abilities, it would only be because a more impressive CPU upgrade is already around the corner. Snapdragon 801 is a stop-gap upgrade between Snapdragon 800 and Snapdragon 805, due later in 2014.
The Snapdragon 801 is merely a supercharged 800. It has the same battery efficiency techniques and the same core components, but they are clocked a bit higher. As such, the 2014 flagships aren't really much more powerful than the LG G2, which currently sells for a good £150-250 less. But then hardly any normal people know that phone exists, it seems, though it's relative the Nexus 5 is wildely popular.
For a few more real-world tests, we tried the Galaxy S5 out with some top-end games. Real Racing 3 shows the same minor frame rate drops we saw with the HTC One M8, seemingly confirming it's down to lacking optimisation on EA's part. Using a 'top-end' phone also makes us naturally keen-eyed for these sorts of things – the game still runs extremely well.
A few other games we tried include Riptide 2 and Dead Trigger 2. The latter is a particularly good way to show off powerful phone hardware, with graphical elements like proper real-time shadows, complex water effects and reflections and real-time lighting effects. The Galaxy S5 handles it with relative ease.
It's the screen – as much as the powerful processor – that makes the Galaxy S5 such a great gaming phone, though. The deep blacks, rich colours and large expanse of screen space make the phone hard to beat.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Camera App
We have not been entirely generous to the Samsung Galaxy S5's TouchWiz interface in this review, but its new approach to the camera app is quite sensible. As with Samsung's recent tablets, it pays plenty of attention to how we actually use screens of varying sizes.
There are columns of control buttons on each side of the screen, both being easily accessible when the phone is held in landscape. You'll also need to get two hands involved when shooting in portrait if you want to change settings, but it works pretty well.
You can customise the mode switches available to your left thumb – typical Samsung style – but the modes that are there fresh out of the box (and likely to be left there by most people) are sensible choices. As standard your left thumb controls the Galaxy S5's HDR and Selective Focus modes. We'll get onto what the new Selective Focus mode does shortly.
The same sort of un-Samsung 'less is more' approach applied to the TouchWiz interface is seen in the camera mode selection a bit too. The Galaxy S4 offered more than 10 special shooting modes, fewer than half of which were useful most of the time. Now there are just six, with the option to download more from the Samsung Apps store (finally giving it a reason to exist).
The Galaxy S5's camera app is one part of the phone that hasn't really been given that much of a visual spruce-up. The Settings pop-out menu is very workmanlike, but we're happy to live with that when it makes it fairly straightforward to use. However, there are some very obvious missing parts in the camera.
Despite having some control over Settings, there's still limited manual control. Unlike the Nokia Lumia 930 and HTC One M8, you can't control shutter speed, white balance control is limited to just a few presets and there's no manual focus. We hope this will be patched up with the introduction of a downloadable full manual mode in the future – for the photo geeks out there.
That said, it's not of great concern for normal users as the Auto mode here is strong. Unlike the HTC One M8's.
Here's a look at the shooting modes you get as standard with the Galaxy S5.
Core Camera Modes
HDRSamsung doesn't seem to have changed its HDR mode algorithm much in the Galaxy S5, but it was already pretty great. It's effective, dramatically increasing image quality on cloudy days or with backlit scenes. It's also pretty quick now. Shot-to-shot speeds with HDR are around 1.5 seconds – not bad at all.
One of the neatest parts of the Galaxy S5's HDR mode is that it gives you a live preview of roughly what your shot will look like on-screen before you shoot. We'll cover HDR image quality in-depth in our camera image quality segment
Selective FocusPhone modes like Selective Focus are the mobile phone camera gimmick of the season. They emulate the wide or variable apertures of dedicated cameras, or the shallow depth of field effects you can get with a good camera lens.
The HTC One M8 is the camera that puts the most effort into this. By comparison, the Galaxy S5's Selective Focus is a flimsy software solution. It involves the phone focusing on and taking pictures of several focal points in the same scene, then merging the results so you can choose which plane is in focus post-shoot. The mode also makes out of focus areas a bit more blurry.
While the results are passable, it takes ages to shoot and only works within a very narrow set of criteria – a subject within 50cm and a background at least 1.5m away. It's a bit rubbish.
HDR and Selective focus are put right at the top of the camera app. But there are other modes within the Mode 'drawer' accessed by your right thumb.
Auto ModeYou should use this mode most of the time. It's a solid automatic shooting mode and doubles as an extremely effective, and aggressive low-light mode, albeit one that slows down the Galaxy S5's shooting performance significantly.
Beauty FaceJust like the Galaxy S4's Beauty Face mode, this smoothes-out people's faces, removing skin blemishes and wrinkles in the process. It doesn't look remotely natural on its highest setting and is the phone version of airbrushing. But apparently there's a lot of call for this stuff.
Shot & MoreWith this mode Samsung has combined all the burst-shot effects we saw in the Galaxy S4. These are what really cluttered up last year's camera app, so it's great to see them put into a pen people can ignore more easily.
Once you've taken the burst of shots, you can choose between Best Photo, Best Face, Drama Shot, Easer and Panning shot sub-modes. The more dynamic of these let you remove objects from a photo and feature multiple instances of the same moving object.
PanoramaThis is a classic mobile phone photo mode. Panorama lets you take almost-360-degree panorama shots, either vertically or horizontally. They're not taken at full resolution, but they'd be absolutely massive if they were.
Virtual TourThe most unusual Galaxy S5 photo mode is virtual tour. It lets you walk around your house (street, school, water park, whatever) taking photos and the phone then makes a rolling composite video of the photos, using pans, zooms and fades to make the transitions appear somewhat seamless.
This mode would be useful to show someone your new house, or one you're thinking about buying. But otherwise we can't imagine many people using it.
Dual CameraThis final inbuilt mode has become popular in phones over the last year or so. It takes a photo, with a 'postage stamp' of the footage from the front camera (i.e. the one pointing at you) embedded into the frame. It'll be handy for those who want to capture pics of the whole family, without missing out the Mum/Dad taking the snap.
Other modesAt present there are four other modes you can download from the Samsung Apps store, and they're ones we've seen before in Samsung phones. You can grab Animated Photo, Sound & Shot, Sports Shot and Surround Shot, which takes a shot of the full 360-degree view around you from all angles.
We're guessing these were the least popular modes in the previous phones. But they're all free to download.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Camera Hardware
The Samsung Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel sensor and f/2.2 lens with a equivalent focal length of 31mm. The Galaxy S4 has a 13-megapixel sensor with an f/2.2 lens, and initially the new model seems like a pretty uninspired upgrade. This continues when we look at the size of the camera sensors.
The Galaxy S5 sensor is bigger than the S4's – ½.6 inches to the S4's 1/3.06 inches. However, all this means is the new phone can get to a higher resolution without reducing the size of the sensor pixels. Both the S4 and S5 have 1.12 micron sensor pixels. That's pretty small, and the size of these pixels has a big hand in low-light performance.
ISOCELL sensorThis sensor is much more of a step forward than you might initially assume, though – both technically and politically. The Galaxy S3 and Galaxy S4 both used Sony camera sensors, but the Galaxy S5 uses a new Samsung-made sensor featuring ISOCELL tech.
Samsung offers loads of highly technical information about ISOCELL on its website, but it revolves around a new sensor architecture that creates a physical barrier between sensor pixels to lower crosstalk. This will let the Galaxy S5 use higher ISO sensitivity settings without introducing too much image noise. Samsung's claim is that crosstalk is down by 30 per cent.
There's another innovation in the Galaxy S5, too. It is the first phone to use phase detection focusing as well as contrast detection.
Hybrid Auto FocusContrast detection is used by all other mobile phone camera AF systems, and it analyses the contrast in areas of an image to attain a solid focus. In-focus objects will always offer higher contrast than the smushy out-of-focus ones. It's a system that's blissfully easy to explain in a basic manner, and most high-end phones now offer excellent contrast detection systems – the iPhone 5S's is a particularly notable star.
Phase detection is a good deal more complicated, mostly because it requires separate hardware and is implemented in various ways in different kinds of cameras. Traditionally in DSLRs a slightly translucent mirror is used to divert some of the light away from the image sensor to a separate PDAF (phase detection autofocus) module.
However, with the Galaxy S5 we get a mirror-free on-sensor phase detection autofocus system. As a concept this is nothing brand new, having been used in a smattering of compact, bridge and compact system cameras since 2010. The first camera to use this technology was the FujiFilm FinePix F300EXR.
What is Phase Detect autofocus?
To understand phase detection you have to look into the basics physics of the camera system a bit. The light that reaches the Galaxy S5's image sensor is passed through a series of six plastic lens elements, and they are curved. When the focusing element isn't in the right place, the light from the extreme left and right (or top/bottom) ends of the front lens element will not reach a point of convergence on the sensor.
What phase detection does is to separate out the light received from these extreme ends of the lens and compares them to see how out of whack – or out of phase – they are. Although Samsung hasn't explained this in official documentation yet, the PDAF layer that sits in front of the image sensor will feature a series of microlenses that separate out this specific 'left' and 'right' information for comparison.
The focusing element is then simply moved until the information from the two ends of the lens is correct, signalling the image is in focus.
The most obvious question – why is phase detection better than contrast detection? If you've looked into the Galaxy S5's autofocus yourself, you'll probably have heard the frustrating generic 'it's faster and more accurate'. However, the systems both have their limitations.
The issue with contrast detection is that the system has to go slightly beyond the point of focus and then 'track back' in order to know that it was indeed the point of highest contrast. If you have a good phone, you may not even have noticed this 'back and forth' focusing. But it does happen, and it is what slows contrast detection down a little bit.
Contrast detection also has trouble in finding focus on objects – you guessed it – that don't have much contrast to speak of. However, in our experience dedicated camera contrast detect systems have much more notable issues with this than top phones. It maybe down to phones having to make up for their tiny lenses and tiny sensors with clever software.
An issue with on-sensor phase detection is that it relies on specific microlenses that sit above the sensor. So the points of focus available to the system are limited.
Handily (sarcasm), Samsung has not confirmed how many phase detection focus points there are, or any specific details of how the PDAF system works. But hopefully we've given you an overview of the matter.
For all the phone's camera innovation, there's one serious omission from the Galaxy S5's camera hardware. It does not have optical image stabilisation, instead relying on a software-based alternative Samsung calls Picture Stabilisation.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Camera Image Quality and Performance
It is often said that megapixels are meaningless in mobile phones. However, give a high-resolution phone like the Galaxy S5 a bright and sunny day and it will generally be able to resolve more detail than a lower-resolution phone.
As our standard view of London test shows below, the Galaxy S5 is capable of producing much, much more detailed photos than the HTC One M8 – one of its key rivals. The difference between the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S4 is less marked, but it is there. By increasing sensor resolution without reducing the size of the photo sensor pixels, it doesn't lose out to its predecessor in any way.
If you passed on reading the last page on camera hardware, the Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel sensor of ½.6-inch size. It's a mite smaller than the Xperia Z2's sensor, but crucially the camera pixels are of the same size.
In daylight conditions, sharpness in photos is excellent. It falls off a bit in the extreme corners, but not to a severe extent. With fine, pixel-level details such as the branches of far-away trees you can see the evidence of the Galaxy S5's image engine doing a bit of sharpening, but nothing that should stop you from being able to crop into pictures should you wish.
Exposure metering is fairly reliable too. It's not hard to take good photos with the Galaxy S5.
When focusing, the phone uses a mix of contrast detection and phase detection, and it is indeed a good deal faster than a plain contrast detection system in many situations. A/B testing with the contrast-based HTC One M8, the Galaxy S5 is much quicker at switching between fairly close objects. Samsung's claim of 0.3 second focusing naturally depends on the lighting and the subject, but the Galaxy is roughly twice as fast as the HTC.
You're less likely to notice these focus benefits when shooting far-away subjects, though, where the focusing element only needs to move a fraction to alter focus. Still, any speed improvement is handy.
We did notice the odd glitch when using face detection, though. The Galaxy S5 would occasionally focus on the near background behind the subject, suggesting the camera may have been favouring a PDAF focus point that wasn't actually sat on the subject. But we're speculating at this point.
Regardless, these speed improvements make the Galaxy S5 about as fast as an iPhone 5S in daylight conditions.
Low-light shootingThe situation changes completely when the lights go down, though. The Samsung Galaxy S5 small pixel pitch camera sensor means without drastic measures the phone will struggle with low lighting compared with an iPhone 5S or HTC One M8.
Samsung has provided the necessary drastic measures, though. When shooting with the Auto mode, the Picture Stabilization feature kicks in once the light dims to a certain level.
Picture stabilisation isn't traditional optical image stabilisation, which uses a motor to tilt lens elements in line with your movements in order to allow longer exposure times. Instead, the Galaxy S5's software stabilisation appears to take a whole series of photos using different settings, and then merges them together to create a single image. A kind of turbo HDR mode, it's likely these settings include sensitivity (ISO) and exposure compensation.
It is remarkably effective, but also really quite slow. The time it takes to produce the photo depends on how rubbish the lighting is, but it can get on for 5-6 seconds. Given standard HDRs take about a second, the Galaxy S5 could be experimenting with a dozen or more exposures here.
Picture Stabilisation is smart, though. The phone asks you to stay still while using picture stabilisation, but if you move half-way thru, the Galaxy S5 seems to discard any shots that don't fit the scene rather than producing a blurry mess.
Night-time shots are still not going to look anywhere near as good as your daylight ones, but stabilisation and the new ISOCELL sensor do bridge the gap between this phone and 'low light specialist' mobiles like the HTC One M8 in image quality terms. Noise levels are quite impressive, and fine details aren't wiped away as a result – detail is actually slightly better in the stabilised shots than the non-stabilised ones.
As the Galaxy S5 doesn't have any big problems with overeposure, our tests show that it can at times produce better-looking shots of stationary objects at night than an HTC One M8. What's particularly impressive is the level and fidelity of colour offered by these low-light shots, and this is largely present whether you use stabilisation or not. Colour performance is something that Samsung says is improved by the new ISOCELL sensor, so we'll give it the credit.
For shots of people at night, though, the Galaxy S5's stabilisation mode is a little slow (people get bored when asked to pose). Weirdly enough, the blurring caused by the composition of various images is actually quite similar to the blurring effect of moving objects we saw in the Lumia-series stabilisation, which uses longer exposures for better low-light shots.
Would real optical stabilisation be better? Absolutely. And indoors low-light shots do struggle with white balance a little, tending to make photos look yellowy at times.
So far we've been talking about shooting completely flash-free. The Galaxy S5 does have a flash, and it is pretty powerful. However, it is the standard single-tone, single-LED type that generally doesn't produce great results.
Samsung Galaxy S5: HDR
As we've come to expect of top Samsung phones, the Galaxy S5 has a pretty great HDR mode. It's effective, but not to the extent that photos look fantasy-style fake.
It's a great way to introduce loads more shadow detail in photos, and to deal with bright-but-cloudy skies that would otherwise risk being overexposed.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Macro
If we were to believe the Galaxy S5's focusing reticule, the phone can focus on objects just a few centimetres away. In reality, it mis-reports close focusing at times and its minimum focal distance is roughly the mobile phone norm – 10-15cm. However the relatively 'zoomed-in' 31mm (35m system equivalent) focal length of the lens makes getting close-up photos pretty easy.
For reference, the Sony Xperia Z1 lens is equivalent to 27mm, the HTC One M8 28mm and the iPhone 5S lens a shade under 30mm. The longer the focal length, the easier it will be to take close-ups, assuming parity in minimum focal distance. Phone makers try to sell wide angle focal lengths as a good thing, but for rear cameras they are not beneficial.
This is the place where we really miss the manual focusing mode we talked about in the camera app section – thanks to the excellent screen your eyes can be a better judge of focus than the Galaxy S5's reticule when shooting close-ups.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Video Capture
The Galaxy S5 shoots video at up to 4K resolution, but in this mode you lose some of the video modes you can use when shooting at 1080p. These include video stabilisation, HDR and stills capture during video.
The phone defaults to 1080p, and we recommend you stick with it for this reason. You can also shoot at various speeds. It maxes out and 8x slower (120fps capture) and 8x faster. However, when shooting in slow motion capture quality is limited to 720p resolution, and owing to the lesser light retrieval per frame, image quality takes a significant hit too.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Front-Facing Camera
Last of all in the camera section we come to the front-facing camera. It is nothing special.
It uses a 2-megapixel sensor, and it does not seem much of an upgrade – if an upgrade at all – over the Galaxy S4's front camera. It's pretty noisy with anything but perfect light conditions, and produces much worse selfies (and video calls) than the HTC One M8. The new HTC phone has a much better 5-megapixel front camera, offering better detail, less noise and much better colour reproduction.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Battery Life
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of just a few current top-end phones to give you access to the battery unit. It's a 2,800 mAh, 10.78Wh brick, up from 2,600mAh in the Galaxy S4.
Many of the most important battery optimisations come from the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, though, not this 200mAh capacity jump.
Without using any of the phone's special power-saving skills, you'll get a day a half out of the phone with moderate use. This year's new flagship phones won't suddenly see us get mobiles that last an age longer than last year's ones if you use things like mobile internet a lot.
As a secondary test we set the Galaxy S5 to play a video from a full charge until the phone switched itself off. With medium brightness, the phone lasts for 11 hours when playing an SD-quality video. This is good, and roughly an hour longer than we squeezed out of the HTC One M8.
Perhaps the handiest new battery features are ones that marry hardware and software optimisations. The Samsung Galaxy S5 offers two power saving battery modes – Power Saving and Ultra Power Saving.
Power Saving is a fairly traditional mode that tweaks things like processor clock speed and screen brightness/contrast. It also lets you restrict background data, and even turn the screen monochrome to limit the power consumption of the display.
Ultra Power Saving goes a few steps further. It does all the above, and provides a super-simple one-screen interface that only gives you access to a six apps – the phone, your SMS messages and the browser. Oh, and it's all in black and white.
You still get access to your mobile data while actually using the phone – it doesn't make the Galaxy S5 zero fun – but all background data and standby data access is naturally off the cards. In this mode the phone can last for more than 10 days on standby. But you'd only really want to use it when you need to hang onto your last 10 per cent of battery for as long as possible.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Call Quality
From something new to a performance just like last time, the Galaxy S5's call quality is pretty ordinary, but perfectly fine.
The earpiece speaker is fairly loud and fairly clear, if lacking a bit of top-end bite. Like most Android phones, the S5 uses a secondary microphone to provide active noise cancellation.
Samsung Galaxy S5: Connectivity
The Samsung Galaxy S5 offers a very complete array of connections. Those that mark the phone out among some of its peers include 4G, Wi-Fi ac, NFC and a new connectivity mode that lets the S5 use your Wi-Fi and mobile internet connections simultaneously for faster download speeds.
The most visible connectivity aberration, though, is the micro USB 3.0 port on the bottom of the handset. It looks like a microUSB port with a half-formed twin jammed onto its side – and that's more-or-less what it is.
It is a little ungainly, but will give you faster transfer rates and faster USB port charging when hooked up to a computer with a USB 3.0 port. We're highly unlikely to see this in next year's Galaxy S6, though, as the USB 3.1 standard has already been announced. Its micro port is as small as the USB 2.0 one, and is reversible to boot. The Galaxy S5's bigger port is likely to be remembered as an oddball. And we're not convinced many people will actually benefit from it.
Still, you can plug a standard microUSB cable into it and use existing chargers, so there's no real compromise involved beyond the weird look.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S5?
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is probably the worst-looking of the three 2014 Android flagships we know about so far. HTC's metal One M8 and Sony's metal/glass Xperia Z2 both offer a look that is more successful than what we have here. Of course, if your phone is case-bound, the look of the hardware won't matter too much.
It carries on into the software too, though. Once again HTC Sense looks and feels slightly better than TouchWiz. And yet again the Samsung UI does prove to be a minor performance drain.
However, other aspects of this phone are good or excellent. The screen is truly superb, providing the sort of image quality that makes us wish people hadn't all-but stopped making OLED TVs.
And while there are ways Samsung could have improved the camera, it is a great performer in day and night alike – as long as you have a steady hand and some patience.
There are misses to match the hits. But the places those hits land are extremely important.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 fits happily into the role of Galaxy S4 successor. It's a phone with some significant improvements over that model. It lacks the style of its nearest rivals, but it more than delivers on every other point and has a truly oustanding screen.
Samsung Galaxy S5 tips, tricks, and hidden features explained