Samsung is known for piling on the features, but for the Galaxy S5 ($199 for 16GB on Verizon) the company has taken a more measured approach. Yes, the built-in heart rate sensor and fingerprint reader are a bit gimmicky. But what wins us over are the S5's awesome display, enhanced camera and water-resistant chassis. Add it all up, and it's easy to see why Samsung's latest smartphone is also its greatest.
Editors' Note:Additional reporting and testing by Daniel Howley.
Once again, Samsung's flagship smartphone comes wrapped in a plastic chassis rather than metal, but that doesn't mean the Galaxy S5 is unattractive. In fact, the S5 looks and feels better than its predecessor, thanks to its textured rear panel. Sporting a soft-touch dimpled pattern, the S5's removable back is a significant improvement over the Galaxy S4's glossy rear. The S5's new backing pairs nicely with the subtle dot matrix-like styling found on the phone's face.
The S5's overall shape is also an improvement over its predecessor's. Whereas the S4 had a more curved look with slightly rounded edges, the S5, with its larger 5.1-inch screen, has a taller, more rectangular appearance. Samsung also switched out the capacitive Settings button to the left of the Home button to the more convenient Recent Apps button.
Like its predecessor, the IR blaster and headphone jack sit up top, with the power button and volume controls 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.
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 inches versus 5.3 x 2.9 x 0.25 inches) makes it more difficult to use with one hand. 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 resistance to water, 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 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 347 nits on our light meter, higher than the S4 (250 nits) but slightly lower than the One M8 (368 nits). However, 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 (156.3 percent versus 115). The iPhone 5s reached only 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 in to 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.
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.
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 4 minutes and 7 seconds to transcode a 204MB full HD video to 480p, which is about 3 minutes faster than the S4. That also beats the LG G Flex's 6:59, as well as the One M8's 4:47.
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 synthetic benchmarks, the S5 turned in scores that are well above average. The phone notched 2,974 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 18,285 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 as opposed to 1 second. We did notice the S5 was ready to fire faster when we attempted to take a shot of the product box.
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 the small text on a passing Verizon FIOS truck. Audio was also quite clear.
4G LTE and Web Surfing
Using Speedtest.net, the Galaxy S5 averaged a swift 18.8 Mbps for downloads. Upload speeds were slightly less impressive, averaging 13.9 Mbps. With those kinds of numbers, the S5 loaded the image-heavy Laptopmag.com in just 5 seconds. Mobile sites for NYTimes.com and ESPN.com loaded in just 3 and 4 seconds, respectively.
The AT&T version of the S5 offered slower speeds near our Manhattan office, with downloads of just 5 Mbps and uploads of 2.3 Mbps.
The Verizon S5's superior Web performance is likely due to its ability to connect to the carrier's LTE AWS network, which has greatly expanded Big Red's available bandwidth versus its standard LTE connection.
The Galaxy S5's 2,800 mAh battery lasted 8 hours and 25 minutes on our Laptop Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Verizon's 4G LTE network with the display brightness set to 150 nits. That's better than the smartphone category average of 6:59, but shy of the 9:42 we observed on the AT&T version of the S5. Verizon's HTC One M8 lasted 9:52, while the LG G Flex ran for 10:57.
If you want to squeeze more juice from this phone, you can engage Ultra Power Savings Mode, which will 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.
We'd appreciate it if Verizon put all of its mostly useless apps in their own folder, instead of peppering our apps menu with Verizon Accessories, Verizon Caller Name ID, Verizon Cloud, Verizon Message+, My Verizon Mobile, Verizon Tones, VZ Navigator and VZ Protect.
Samsung bundles several of its own apps, including Smart Remote for controlling your TV and S Voice for Siri-like functionality. 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 Verizon.
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 our review unit. Milk uses a funky retro-looking dial to quickly scan through multiple channels and genres.
Unlike the AT&T S5, which has both the standard Android browser and Chrome, the Verizon has only Chrome preinstalled.
Samsung's Galaxy S5 is a stellar Android smartphone. Its more refined interface, practically perfect display and improved camera make it a worthy successor to the S4. Add to that more than 8 hours of battery life and a water-resistant chassis, and the Galaxy S5 finds itself at a level occupied by few other smartphones.
We wish Samsung offered a more premium metal design and better sound like the HTC One M8. Overall, though, the Galaxy S5 is easily one of the best smartphones money can buy.