While a top seller, the Samsung Galaxy S4 simply tried to do too much, from scrolling content with your eyes to language translation. The Galaxy S5 ($199 for 16GB on AT&T) has some gee-whiz features of its own, including a heart rate monitor, but it's less--shall we say--Samsung-y. This time the company streamlined the interface and focused on improvements that will resonate more with the masses, such as a water-resistant design, richer display and faster camera. The result is a slightly less ambitious, but ultimately more satisfying device.
No, there's still no metal, but the S5 does look and feel better than its predecessor, especially from the back. Samsung wisely swapped the greasy, glossy backplate on the S4 for a softer finish with a dot pattern. It's still removable, allowing the user to swap batteries or put on a replacement panel. We tested the pearl white version, but you can also order it in black. The camera protrudes more in the back than before, but not annoyingly so. A (very) faux metal trim runs along the outside of the handset.
With the exception of its larger size--owing to the bigger 5.1-inch screen--the front of the S5 looks nearly the same as the S4. However, we appreciate that a subtle dot pattern carries over to the front of the phone. The design feels a bit more unified than before.
We immediately noticed that the capacitive keys flanking the home button changed from the Galaxy S4. Now you'll find the Recent Apps button on the left and Back on the right, instead of Menu and Back buttons, respectively, on the S4. This alteration means the Home button can now be used for accessing Google Now (long press) or S Voice (two clicks).
Like before, the IR blaster and headphone jack sit up top, and the power button and volume controls are on the right and left sides, respectively. One unwelcome change will bug you every time you charge the device: In order to make the S5 water resistant, Samsung decided to protect the microUSB port with a flap. We also worry that this flimsy flap will snap off over time.
While we wouldn't necessarily classify the Galaxy S5 as a phablet, having larger dimensions than the S4 (5.6 x 2.9 x 0.31 versus 5.3 x 2.9 x 0.25 inches) makes it more difficult to use with one hand. For example, we had to shift the device in our hand to swipe to unlock the phone using the home button's fingerprint sensor. In addition, the S5 weighs a heftier 5.1 ounces (up from 4.6 ounces on the S4).
Overall, the S5 feels solid but unsexy compared to the aluminum HTC One M8, but the latter device is a beefier 5.6 ounces and has a nonremovable backside.
While Samsung needed to make a special active version of the Galaxy S4 to offer water resistance, the S5 has that goodness baked in. With its IP rating of 67, this device can withstand a depth of 1 meter for 30 minutes. While you can't go swimming with the S5 like the Sony Xperia Z1s, which lets you take pictures underwater, Samsung's handset can survive accidental splashes and dunkings.
We dropped the S5 in a shallow bowl of water for a few minutes and then picked it up and dried it off. The handset continued to work just fine. Just don't expect to operate the touch screen while submerged; our inputs didn't register.
You won't find a more gorgeous display on a smartphone. The Galaxy S5's 5.1-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen is not only brighter than its predecessor, but also offers richer colors and better contrast than the HTC One M8. In a side-by-side comparison watching the "X-Men: Days of Future Past" trailer, Wolverine's face looked warmer and more detailed on the S5. The Samsung also offered deeper blacks, while the M8's looked cloudier.
The S5 averaged 493 lux on our light meter (373 nits), higher than the S4 (446 lux) and the One M8 (460 lux, 368 nits). Even more impressive, the latest Galaxy offers very accurate colors, as it registered a Delta-E score of 0.9 (lower numbers are better). The HTC One M8 scored 4.1 and the older S4 5.7, but the iPhone 5s was an even better 0.05.
The S5 also produced more of the sRGB color gamut than the One M8 in our testing (158.4 percent versus 115). The iPhone 5s only reached 98.4 percent.
Outdoors, the S5's Adapt Display mode (enabled by default) is supposed to analyze incoming light and what you're viewing to optimize color and sharpness on the fly. The S5's picture did look a bit brighter and richer than the iPhone 5s and considerably more so than the One M8.
It's hard for any smartphone to compete against the HTC One M8's dual Boom Sound speakers, but the S5's single rear speaker got decently loud when we streamed Pharell William's "Happy." Ultimately, though, HTC's device wins hands-down. The M8 delivered deeper, richer audio, and the cymbals were much more pronounced.
Registering 73 decibels on the Laptop Mag audio test, the S5 is quieter than the One M8 (83 dB) and the LG G2 (80 dB).
Following the lead of the iPhone 5s, the Galaxy S5 integrates a fingerprint reader into its home button for unlocking the device and signing into our Samsung account. However, unlike Apple's implementation, you can also use the sensor for making payments via PayPal. (You can't use your fingerprint to log into websites.)
Registering our fingerprint was fairly easy, and the S5 can store up to three digits. However, the S5 sometimes had trouble recognizing our swipes, reminding us to swipe the entire pad. We've found the Touch ID sensor on the iPhone 5s, upon which you just place a finger, to work more consistently.
The PayPal integration lets you pay for things on websites or apps that accept PayPal, as well as some physical stores. The good news is that we were able to bill a Newegg purchase of an SD Card using a swipe of our finger. The bad news is that it takes several steps to get set up, including downloading the latest PayPal app and linking your fingerprint to your account. In this example, we still we needed to step through a couple more screens to fully complete our transaction.
In order to make its smartphones feel more intuitive to operate, Samsung applied a makeover to its TouchWiz interface, which runs atop Android 4.4.2 on the Galaxy S5. For example, the Settings menu has a flat look with colorful circles representing the options. The notification drawer also sports circular buttons, with 10 available quick-setting shortcuts, and 10 more if you enter grid view.
The S5's lock screen makes the camera shortcut larger to make it easier to launch the camera. However, Samsung took away the ability to use shortcuts to other apps from the lock screen, which power users won't appreciate.
The main home screen of the S5 houses a weather widget up top and a Google search bar in the middle that supports voice search. Just say "OK Google" to find what you're looking for.
Swiping to the left launches My Magazine, a Flipboard-powered news reader that also sucks in social networking feeds from Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter and others but not Facebook. The tile-based interface looks slick, and you can drill down into categories to choose your favorite media outlets. We just wish the main page refreshed faster with new content--it took several seconds over AT&T's network.
As with the Galaxy S4, you can enable Multi Window to run two apps on the screen at once. This feature will come in handy for multitaskers who want to, say, drag a photo from the Gallery into an outgoing email. The Galaxy S5 supports 25 apps for split-screen use.
Samsung still insists on having its phones bloop and bleep when unlocking the device, turning off the screen and (of course) when receiving notifications. We turned the system volume down.
It might not seem like a big deal, but having a dedicated number row on the S5's keyboard is a huge time-saver. This feature carries over from the S4, as does predictive text and swiping via SwifKey technology. Although the letters on this layout are smaller than on the HTC One M8, we didn't make many typos and appreciated the light haptic feedback.
S Health and Heart Rate Monitor
Do people want their smartphone to read their heart rate? As the interest in fitness trackers and "the quantified self" grows, Samsung hopes to tap into that trend with its redesigned S Health app, which can read your heart rate using a sensor on the back of the device. After holding our fingertip on the sensor for several seconds, the S5 displayed our heartbeats per minute.
We suppose this feature will satisfy the curiosity of some--and it could be a handy tool to use after a workout--but the novelty will likely wear off quickly for those who aren't particularly active. Besides, those who want to keep better tabs on their heart rate will probably choose a dedicated wearable device like the Samsung Gear Fit.
The S5 can also track your steps, calories burned and calories consumed. Assuming you have GPS turned on, the S5 can measure not only the distance you traveled but your elevation, making it a solid workout companion.
What's most impressive is S Health's ability to track your diet. Enter "yogurt parfait," for example, and the S5 will include results from multiple name brands and even restaurants. In this case we could select McDonald's, Dannon, Starbucks and several other options.
The Galaxy S5 boasts a powerful 2.5-GHz Snapdragon 801 processor along with an Adreno 330 GPU and 2GB of RAM. These components combined to deliver impressive performance in synthetic benchmarks and mixed results in some real-world tests.
For instance, the S5 took 19 seconds to load the resource-intensive "N.O.V.A. 3" game, compared with 17 seconds for the HTC One M8, which has a 2.3-GHz Snapdragon 801 CPU and the same amount of RAM. The LG G Flex (2.26-GHz Snapdragon 800, 2GB RAM) also took 17 seconds.
The new Galaxy S5 took a mere 5 minutes and 7 seconds to transcode a 204MB full HD video to 480p, which is about 2 minutes faster than the S4. That also beats the LG G Flex's 6:59. However, the One M8 turned in a faster 4:47.
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In side-by-side tests, the Galaxy S5 was a step behind the One M8 when exiting apps to the home screen, though turning off animations in settings can cut down the time. The two were neck and neck when changing screen orientations.
In various benchmarks, the S5 turned in scores that are well above average. The phone notched 2,927 in Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance. That trumps the HTC One M8 (2,480) and the G Flex (2,015).
The S5 also has serious graphics chops. It scored 18,024 in Ice Storm Unlimited, which is more than double the category average. However, the One M8 scored an even higher 20,965.
Faster, sharper and (somewhat) less cluttered, the Galaxy S5's 16-megapixel camera is the most improved feature versus the Galaxy S4. The new Real Time HDR setting really impressed, as it lets you preview the high-dynamic range images before you take the shot. The iPhone 5s needs to capture the images first and stitch them together. When we photographed a New York City building, the camera brought out details that would otherwise be draped in shadows.
Samsung also deserves credit for combining multiple modes into one. Shot & More lets you apply all sorts of enhancements after you shoot, including Eraser Mode (for erasing photobombers), Best Face (for choosing the best expression on your subjects) and three other options. In our tests, though, the S5 had trouble picking out one face in a group photo.
The Galaxy S5's new Selective Focus feature brings some creative fun to photo-taking. By pressing a button on the left side of the screen, you can snap a shot and then decide afterward if you want the foreground or background in focus. The effect worked well when we shot a co-worker holding a soda bottle out in front of him, but we wish you could precisely select the focal point as you can with the HTC One M8.
Samsung says the Galaxy S5 is capable of focusing in one-third the time of its predecessor, 0.3 seconds compared to 1 second. We did notice the S5 was ready to fire faster when we attempted to take a shot of the product box.
Photo and Video Quality
Overall, the S5 produced crisp and colorful images outdoors and slightly better-looking photos than its predecessor indoors. In a close-up shot of flowers, the Galaxy more than held its own versus the iPhone 5s. The S5's image had more even focus throughout and better details in the petals, but the yellow flower in the center had better contrast on the iPhone.
In another image we took of some tchotchkes indoors under fluorescent light, the Galaxy S5 produced richer colors, but the iPhone 5s' shot was brighter overall.
The S5 fell flat when we shot some co-workers in a very dim room. Samsung's image came out unnaturally bright but quite fuzzy, especially when zoomed in. The iPhone 5s and One M8 produced more detailed photos. Turning on image stabilization in the S5's busy settings menu should help.
A selfie we snapped with the front 2.1-MP shooter in our office turned out bright, but our plaid tie was fuzzy around the edges.
The Galaxy S5 captured pristine 1080p footage of New York City traffic. Yellow taxis popped, and we could make out small text on a passing Verizon FIOS truck. Audio was also quite clear.
4G Data and Voice Performance
AT&T's network has fallen behind Verizon and AT&T in New York City as of late, so we weren't surprised to see middling throughput from the S5. In Midtown Manhattan, the phone averaged just under 5 Mbps for downloads and 2.3 Mbps uploads. We like to see closer to 10 Mbps down and 5 up.
MORE: NYC 4G Showdown 2014
The good news is that the S5 supports LTE Advanced, so it will be able to take advantage of that upgrade once AT&T soups up its network.
The T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular versions of the Galaxy S5 can combine your Wi-Fi and LTE connections for faster downloads via a new Download Booster feature. However, AT&T and other carriers haven't yet confirmed if they will offer it.
We have positive things to say about the S5's call performance. During a test call to a co-worker's landline, he said we sounded clear and pretty good overall. His voice sounded slightly digitized to us but plenty loud.
Battery Life and Ultra Low Power Mode
The Galaxy S5 packs a 2,800 mAH battery--up from 2,600 mAH on the Galaxy S4--which delivered excellent endurance on the Laptop Mag Battery Test. The handset lasted 9 hours and 42 minutes when surfing the Web continuously over 4G LTE on 150 nits of brightness. (This translates to 30 percent brightness.) Under the same conditions the HTC One M8 lasted 9:52.
On our earlier version of the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which used 40 percent brightness in all cases, the S4 lasted just 5 hours and 13 minutes.
If you want to squeeze even more juice from this phone, you can engage Ultra Power Savings Mode, which can dramatically increase your runtime. Entering this mode changes the screen to grayscale, restricts application usage and turns off mobile data when the screen is off to save power. It also shuts down Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The stripped-down interface presents only three options by default (Phone, Messages and Internet), but you can add more from a menu of six other choices, including Google+ and Voice Recorder.
Our only complaint is that it took a while to enter and exit this mode--21 seconds to enter and nearly 15 to leave. It's like having to reboot your device.
Note to AT&T: Please put all of your mostly useless apps in their own, single folder. Instead, each one gets a prominent spot on the app menu, including AT&T Family Map, AT&T Locker and Caller Name ID. Definitely avoid AT&T Navigator, unless you like paying a premium for directions Google Maps offers for free.
More compelling pre-loaded apps include Beats Music, Flipboard (despite some redundancy with My Magazine), and Keeper for storing passwords. Samsung bundles several of its own apps, including Smart Remote for controlling your TV and S Voice for Siri-like functionality.
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If you want to make secure mobile payments using your phone via the Isis Wallet app, you'll need to get a special Enhanced SIM card from AT&T. (How exactly is that going to help adoption?)
Parents will appreciate the Kids Mode app, which is weirdly buried in the Widgets menu. Once you create a profile for your child, they'll have a walled garden of kid-friendly apps, including a fun dinosaur that records what your child sings and then plays it back. You can also set time limits and whitelist additional apps.
Samsung also touts its Milk Music app, but it wasn't included on the AT&T version. Milk uses a funky retro-looking dial to quickly scan through multiple channels and genres.
The Galaxy S5 represents a shift for Samsung away from throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks to placing bets on fewer innovations. That strategy largely pays off with this handset. While the fingerprint reader could be more consistent, the S5 is a more refined product than the S4. We love the bright and colorful display, longer battery life and sharper camera with real-time HDR. And even though a heart rate monitor feels gimmicky on a phone, the S Health app itself has value--especially when you pair it with a Gear Fit or Gear 2 smartwatch.
Among competing smartphones, the HTC One M8 is the S5's toughest competitor, offering a sleeker metal design and better speakers. It's also faster in everyday use. However, the M8's lower-res camera falls short of the S5, and it isn't water-resistant. The iPhone 5s also remains a top choice because of its more intuitive interface and better app selection, though its small screen now feels dated compared to the S5. Overall, the Galaxy S5 isn't trying to be a game-changer, just a great Android phone. And that it is.