If you've seen one Galaxy S device, you've seen 'em all. Each iteration of the popular smartphone series has had a few nips and tucks, but overall it's maintained the same look over the years. The S5 is no exception: The only new features here are its squarish shape and its plastic, waterproof casing -- dimpled to look sort of like leather (it doesn't really). Even then, you can tell at a glance that it's a Galaxy S.
If there's one word we'd use to describe the Galaxy S5 design, it's "inoffensive." It's not exactly a visual treat like the new HTC One M8, but it's not ugly either. And that's not surprising, really: Samsung usually plays it safe with its designs. This time around, I've heard plenty of jokes referring to the GS5 as the "Band-Aid Phone," a nod to those dimples on the back. Truly, though, I only see that in certain colors, especially the gold version. Fortunately, my white unit doesn't look like a Band-Aid at all; in fact, I prefer it to the glossy covers used on the GS3 and GS4.
Indeed, there's something to having a less slippery design: I was able to grip the 8.1mm-thick phone without feeling like it was going to slip through my fingers. In particular, the blunt edges and mostly flat back make it easy to wrap your fingers around the device. And that's a good thing, since the GS5 is larger than its predecessor in every way (5mm taller, almost 3mm wider and 0.2mm thicker). In other words, if you thought the GS4 was too large, this year's version may be too much. It's also 0.52 ounce (15g) heavier, but I only noticed the difference when I was holding one device in each hand. And besides, by modern-day standards it's compact: Compared to the One M8, the GS5 is shorter, thinner and lighter, and that's with a slightly larger screen, too.
I mentioned earlier that the GS5 is waterproof. More specifically, it's IP67-certified, which means it can be immersed in up to one meter of water for up to 30 minutes. But before you decide to take it for a swim, make sure to close the back using the rubber gasket and seal the charging port. Curiously, the headphone jack is completely open, but somehow is impervious to water.
There are only a few changes to the button layout, compared to last year's GS4. The power button and volume rocker are still on the right and left, respectively. There's now a micro-USB 3.0/MHL 2.0 port on the bottom, which is protected by a waterproof tab. The IR blaster, meanwhile, sits on the top left, with the 3.5mm headphone jack over on the top right. Additionally, the home button now includes a capacitive fingerprint sensor, which I'll discuss in more detail later on. Around back you'll find the small speaker grille, but the biggest change can be found farther up: Samsung installed a heart rate monitor next to the LED flash, just underneath the rear camera.
As ever, Samsung included a removable back cover and a swappable battery, with a capacity of 2,800mAh (up from 2,600mAh). There's also a microSD slot for up to 128GB of external storage. Out of the box, you get either 16GB or 32GB of built-in storage; just remember that the operating system takes up a lot of space before you even get around to installing apps or downloading movies. In fact, my 16GB unit had a little under 12GB of space when I started using it, so if you're even slightly concerned about storing large files, I recommend going with the 32GB model or buying a big memory card to compensate.
I won't spend a lot of time on connectivity because it will ultimately vary depending on where you live and which carrier you use (that last bit is particularly true in the US). That said, most variants feature quad-band GSM/EDGE, quad-band HSPA+ 42.2 Mbps (850/900/1900/2100) and LTE Cat 4 (which offers speeds of up to 150 Mbps). The GS5 also supports carrier aggregation, which basically means that it can fuse together LTE from different towers to increase your data speeds. But again, this will largely depend on whether your carrier even supports that technology.
Finally, you'll also get Bluetooth 4.0 + LE, GPS/GLONASS, DLNA, USB OTG, MHL 2.0 and WiFi Direct. There's also dual-band WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, but the GS5 is the first phone that we've seen with two-channel MIMO support. In English, it includes an extra antenna, with which you could theoretically double your speed -- provided you have the right kind of supporting equipment, of course.
Oh, and while I'm on the subject of speed, most versions of the GS5 come with a new feature called Download Booster, which essentially combines the power of LTE, WiFi and Grayskull to help large files download faster than they would on any one connection. The service won't work on anything smaller than 30MB, and doesn't apply to certain protocols like FTP and UDP. But if you're trying to install an app, load a YouTube video or save a movie your cousin shared with you on Facebook, Download Booster should do the trick. If you don't have an unlimited data plan, however, be very careful about how often you use this -- if you're not keeping tabs on your usage, your next bill might give you an aneurysm.
The S5's 5.1-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display has the same resolution as last year's flagship despite the larger size screen. Yes, pixel-density snobs, that means you're subjected to nine fewer pixels per inch (441 vs. 432). In any case, those nine pixels were worth the sacrifice: The display here is a surprising improvement over the S4. The difference is easy enough to see with the naked eye, especially when you put the two devices side by side.
For starters, the S5 is much brighter than the S4, not only indoors, but also in direct sunlight (with auto-brightness turned on, the display goes up to around 450 nits). At the same time, it's also capable of dimming down to as low as two nits in pitch-black rooms. This makes for a more comfortable viewing experience when you're reading in a dark bedroom or (tsk, tsk) catching up on Facebook during a movie. The viewing angles have improved significantly as well: Even from a severe angle, the colors are more lifelike, and it's easier to read onscreen text. Admittedly, the HTC One M8's S-LCD panel does a better job with whites and darks, although the GS5 offers more color saturation (and it's not even over-the-top saturation this time, either). As you can see, I'm being rather nitpicky here, but I believe most users will be happy with either display.
And if you're not happy? Unlike most non-Samsung phones (save for Nokia), the GS5 has five screen modes: Professional Photo, Cinema, Dynamic, Adapt and Standard. They all use a different color gamut; so if one doesn't fit your fancy, try the others to see what works best.
Until the iPhone 5s came out, the last flagship phone with a fingerprint scanner was the Motorola Atrix 4G -- and that was three years ago. Back then, it was clear the technology wasn't ready for prime time, mostly because the sensors didn't actually work very well. Now, in 2014, the S5 comes with a capacitive fingerprint scanner built into the home button -- yep, just like on the iPhone. It remains to be seen if this leads to another court battle, but regardless, you can't fault Samsung for choosing the home button: We touch that part of the phone dozens (if not hundreds) times a day.
So, how exactly does the scanner work here? Samsung's setup features Synaptics' Natural ID, which consists of a tiny sensor that sits underneath the button. (Synaptics calls it "a miniature touchpad with built-in capacitive sensing.") When it's time for the phone to learn your prints, you swipe your finger over the home button several times, allowing the sensor to read the inner live layers of the tip of your finger. Using signal strength, the sensor can draw a "map" of your fingerprint and presto -- you're all set. You can store up to three prints total, although I'd prefer even more.
If the sensor doesn't recognize your finger after five attempts, the phone will prompt you to enter an alternative password. It's an alphanumeric password, mind, so you'll have to include both numbers and letters instead of a simple four-digit PIN code. On one hand (no pun intended), Samsung likely did it this way to make the phone more secure, but I still believe users should be able to choose what type of password they want.
Speaking of security, should we be concerned about privacy? According to Samsung and Synaptics, the answer is no. When the sensor talks to the processor ("Hey, this print checks out just fine. Go ahead and let them in."), all information is encrypted. What's more, the prints are stored locally on the phone, and instead of storing an actual image of your print, it only logs a virtual map. Spoofing also wouldn't work; Synaptics says that any change in the physical properties of the phone will result in rejection.
All in all, Samsung makes more use out of its fingerprint scanner than Apple does with Touch ID. Both the GS5 and iPhone 5s use the scanner to unlock the phone, obviously, but that's where the similarities end. The only other thing Touch ID can do is approve App Store and iTunes downloads. Samsung, meanwhile, lets you make online payments through PayPal, as well as access a private "locker" for confidential files. I'd also like to see these companies open up their sensors to third-party developers; all in due time, hopefully.
Getting down to brass tacks, how well does the thing actually work? It depends. I trained the GS5 to recognize both of my thumbs and my right index finger, since those are the three digits I use the most when waking up the phone. Over the course of several days, I made dozens of attempts with each finger and it only recognized me on the first try about half the time -- and that's a generous estimate. More often than not, I had to swipe my finger two or three times before it let me in; typing in a PIN code would've been more efficient. Worse, there were other times when the scanner wouldn't recognize me at all, even as I adjusted my swipe speed, angle and finger pressure. And even when it works, there's a small delay after you swipe before the phone accepts your print.
As for one-handed use, don't even bother. It's technically possible, but the odds of success are so low I have a better chance of seeing Narnia each time I open my closet. Normally, I hold the phone in my left hand and try to swipe the sensor with my left thumb; however, my thumb is at such an angle that the sensor simply can't recognize it. Sometimes it'll work if I push the phone up a little higher and try to position the thumb at a more shallow angle, but even then, it takes multiple attempts, and it's so off-balance that I've come close to dropping the device several times. Apple's sensor, on the other hand, has no problem picking up my fingerprint from any angle.
To be fair, my experience may get better over time (although in Apple's case, it got worse for a while). It's obvious there's a learning curve here; it can take practice to place your finger in just the right place, at just the right speed with just the right amount of pressure. However, I don't believe most people will be that patient -- after a few frustrating attempts, users might simply turn the feature off (or worse, attempt a warranty swap because they think it's defective).
There's a bit of a silver lining, at least: If you don't like it, don't want to use it or it simply doesn't work for you (or all of the above), you don't have to use it. And unlike the HTC One Max, whose fingerprint scanner sits below the rear camera, the sensor itself isn't visually distracting.
Heart rate monitor
Samsung's been making a big deal about health recently. It's offered an app called S Health for quite some time, which helps users track their exercise and food intake. Starting with the GS4 in particular, the app's been able to monitor heart rate and steps with the help of third-party accessories. Now, though, both of these features are built directly into the GS5, giving you one or two fewer fitness gadgets to carry around. That said, the heart rate monitors built into the new Gear 2 and Gear Fit smartwatches integrate with S Health, so the company's hoping you'll buy some fitness wearables after all (so long as they're made by Samsung, of course).
To get started, go to the Heart Rate section of S Health. Then, once prompted, put your finger over the sensor, keep still and stay quiet. Be careful where you put your finger, though: The sensor, which uses a light that allows it to "see" and measure your pulse, is positioned almost directly beneath the camera lens. Without your eyes directly guiding your finger to the right place, it's easy to mistake the camera lens for the heart rate monitor. (Pro tip: You'll want to keep a cloth handy to wipe off the lens if you do this a lot.) As with the fingerprint scanner, positioning is crucial. If my finger was even slightly off, the monitor couldn't measure my pulse and I'd have to redo it. When you've done it right, you'll know pretty quickly since it only takes five seconds or so to complete the process.
Our team tested the heart rate monitor against more dedicated fitness devices like the Garmin chest strap (connected to a Vivofit) and the Adidas Smart watch. After a series of tests, we noticed that the GS5's results averaged about five or six beats per minute lower than the Garmin and Adidas. That said, the scores did match sometimes, but this was the exception rather than the rule. In other words, the GS5 sensor will do a good job getting you an "in the neighborhood" reading, but you're still better off with a standalone monitor if you want the most precise results.
As with the hardware design, Samsung's TouchWiz software tends to err on the safe side; in the past, Samsung only made minor tweaks to the UI. With the GS5, however, the company's Android skin has received quite the face-lift, resulting in a design that's flatter, more modern-looking. If you ask us, it's a step in the right direction -- and a sign that Samsung knows it needs to freshen up TouchWiz. Even so, the layout is confusing. The old TouchWiz used tabs on nearly every screen, but no longer. Meanwhile, Samsung introduced a new font, and for whatever reason, the interface uses a lot of circles. Oddly, too, there are some inconsistencies; the settings menu uses large, circular icons (though you can switch to list or tab view at any time), which makes it more of a chore to scroll through the menu. Icons in the main app drawer, on the other hand, hew to the old-school TouchWiz look. And that's not all: There are elements of stock Android (4.4.2 KitKat) sprinkled in as well.
Most core apps have been redesigned to be more visually appealing, and even the recent apps menu has a fresh look. But given that Google recently had a discussion with Samsung about how it can down its Android skin, it's frustrating that there are at least two versions of most core apps -- Samsung pushes its own in-house software, even though Google provides similar apps of its own. This means there are two app stores, two music players, two browsers, two photo gallery apps, two voice assistants and three messaging apps (four on the AT&T version). While there's something to be said about choice, this is just a tangled mess, and I have to wonder if the extra baggage bogs down the phone's performance. Fortunately, you can hide the apps you don't plan to use, which at least cuts down on the clutter.
My Magazine has carried over from the Note 3, but it's now accessible by swiping from left to right. If Samsung is indeed interested in getting on Google's good side, I'd like to see the company give us the choice between My Magazine and the Google Now experience. Curiously, it's not even part of the TouchWiz launcher, but, rather, a separate application. As for the feature itself, it's basically Flipboard with a few customizations -- in fact, clicking on categories and links will often take you out of My Magazine and into the actual Flipboard app.
Older Samsung features like Air browse, Air view, Smart stay, Smart scroll and Smart rotation are all still here, though they aren't quite as in-your-face as they once were. In fact, most of them are buried in the settings, so you have to want them in order to find them. Safety Assistance, Blocking Mode and Easy Mode are also around.
In the settings menu, you'll find a small, but important addition: a search function. If you know what you're looking for, but don't feel like spending an hour swiping through 20 menus to find it, you can search for the term and head straight there. Heck, if you're searching for a checkbox, the search results will include that box in the list, so you don't even have to go into the menu to toggle it.