The Samsung Galaxy S5: A Full Review

Each year, year after year, Samsung is able to pump out millions upon millions of their S line smartphones. It would seem that they would have figured out the secret formula for making the perfect phone. After all, they have become the top selling industry leader of smartphones running the Android operating system. Obviously, huge emphasis on the “Android” part of that last statement. But what is it about the S line that makes people go crazy for Samsung? With this review of the Samsung Galaxy S5, I’m hoping I can figure it out.
The S5 definitely has it’s perks. It has some firsts too. First Samsung smartphone to don a fingerprint scanner. First smartphone from any OEM to don a dedicated heart rate monitoring sensor. I can quickly see that Samsung isn’t afraid to test the waters and continues to throw the proverbial noodle against the wall. Let’s get started with the full review, and I’ll show you the parts I think will stick.

The Hardware

If you are at all familiar with last year’s S4 device, you will quickly identify some obvious changes in the hardware design. Beginning with the back plate, Samsung has done away with the glossy fingerprint magnet of a finish and offers a softer matte design. Also, it’s been parodied that the back plate resembles that of a band-aid with it’s dimple texture.  The corners are still round but come closer to resembling a square shape. It’s 5.6″ from top to bottom, 2.85″ from side to side and a mere 0.31″ thick. The differences in screen size from last year is only 0.1 of an inch, coming in to play with a 5.1″ 1080p Super AMOLED display. However, the length and width is significant and noticeable. Samsung also threw in an infared blaster on top so that it doubles as a TV/cable/satellite remote control.
Other parts are exactly the same. The speaker is still on the back and near the bottom left corner. The power button is on the right while the volume buttons are on the left. The top, once again, includes the headphone jack, and the micro USB port is in the bottom center. Oh but there are still a few more, hidden, hardware features that make up the key differences with this phone.

This puppy is rocking some of the most up to date internal parts you can get your hands on. We are talking about a Snapdragon 801 Quad Core processor and 2GB of RAM. Plenty of processing speed to run your favorite apps, playback movies in HD quality, jump from app to app all without a hiccup. Fast processing power with clear, beautiful, results that you can see. Additional features also include:
  • 2800 mAh battery rated at 29 hours of talk time, up to 13 hours of internet usage, 77 hours of music or 14 hours of video playback.
  • It supports a micro SD card of up to 128GB for extra storage.
  • 2MP camera on the front for selfies and video chats. 16MP camera on the back with LED flash. More on this later.
  • The glass on the display is Gorilla Glass 3, strongest yet and scratch resistant.
  • It only weighs 5.11 ounces which is roughly the same as a deck of playing cards.
With all those extras, it most certainly does look like a possible ace up the sleeve.

It’s debatable that one of the best features about this phone is the 16MP rear facing camera. I would go so far as to say that it’s probably one of the best available today on any smartphone. The pros far out way the cons, but alas there are a few cons to express. Let’s start with the few cons about the camera. It sticks out from the phone itself. As you can see from the pic above, the phone comes to rest on the camera housing when laying on its back. Without a case, you can imagine the ease of possible scratches. And a single scratch on the camera lens will ruin any great camera. Moving along to the camera software, I would argue that there are way too many options and settings. This quite possibly was the argument from many others as well because I should note that there are far less options on the S5 than what was available on the S4 or Note 3. Samsung removed many filters and effects to reduce the clutter out of the box. But don’t fret, all those same great filters and effects (and more) are still available through the Samsung store, AKA the Hub. Some are free, others you will now have to pay for. For those of you who like options and know how to manually set the exposure or white balance, you will have plenty of menus and settings to go through to get it just right.
So what are the pros about the camera? Oh the pictures are things of beauty. I won’t say that this phone can’t take a bad picture, but it most certainly makes it easy to take great ones. Samsung figured out camera quality a few iterations back and they continue to repeat what they have learned, which is a good thing. Below are just a few samples. You will see colors are brilliant. Details are clear and crisp. The zoom is up to 4 times and they come out but just alright. There is one below of a bird on my roof without zoom and another at 4 times the zoom. Though there are so many settings to choose from, the few important ones are fun to play with. I found it difficult to know exactly what effect I was choosing. This is because Samsung has changed it’s camera software and settings since the last Samsung flagship, the Galaxy Note 3. They combined options together so they could reduce the menu, but in doing so, it’s not so obvious anymore to know what they will turn out to look like. It’s trial and error in the beginning until you get use to them.

Camera Samples

No zoom
4X’s zoom
almost direct sunlight

Special Hardware Features

There are a few special hardware features that come along with the Samsung Galaxy S5. One of the more unique ones is the dedicated heart rate monitor which can be found on the back of the phone underneath the camera and right next door to the flash. You will need to access the heart rate monitor application through the Samsung S Health app. Once open, it will walk you through a short tutorial of how to use it properly which includes standing still, being quiet, and holding your finger over the sensor on the back but without pushing down hard.

Although, I am not a nurse or doctor, I assume the accuracy is pretty close if not dead on. I did compare it to other heart rate monitor applications found in the Play Store and the consistency was comparable to four different applications. But I’m wondering if you caught what I just said there. I compared it to 4 other apps already in the Play Store. You may be asking yourself “How did I do that if the S5 is the first phone with a dedicated heart rate sensor?”. It is true, the S5 is the first phone with a dedicated heart rate sensor but there have been apps in the Play Store and they use your phone’s camera instead of a dedicated sensor. These same apps work on the S5 using it’s camera as a sensor. These apps work on almost any Android device that has a camera and a flash. I tested them on the S4 and Moto X as a comparison for this review. All tests were within 4 beats per minutes of each other on any given device. I know I said a lot to make this point but Samsung has a great marketing department, but you don’t have to buy an S5 to be able to test your heart rate on Android.

If you’ve ever fallen victim of the accidental phone drop in the toilet, water puddle, or pool, you will most certainly appreciate this next feature. The Samsung Galaxy S5 is certified to be dustproof and water-resistant for being submerged in water up to 1 meter for 30 minutes. This is not an industry first by all means, but it is for one of Samsung’s S line phones. To accomplish this feat, Samsung made some meticulous design decisions. Behind the backplate you will find a rubber seal which surrounds the battery and the SIM card/SD card slots. There is also a flap and seal to cover the USB 3.0 charging port. Additional seals under the hood also account for the extra thickness, height, and width which is why the S5 has grown more than expected from it’s little brother the S4 despite the slight increase in display.

The flap and seal around the USB port at the bottom will take some adjustment to get use to it. It’s irritating and tedious to close. It doesn’t “get out of the way” to plug in the cord, and it’s definitely not a one-handed job anymore to plug it in. In fact you almost need a third hand. One to hold the phone, one to hold back the flap, and one to plug it in. Closing the port is irritating as well. The flap is held on by a small piece of plastic on the right side of the port. Its durable plastic, I’ll give it that, because it wants to be back in it’s home. However, you have to pull that connection out slightly to get the flap out of the way, and then you have to push it back in again before you close the flap or else it will not seal completely. And if it’s not sealed completely, the water-resistance certification becomes null and void.

The front of the phone is covered with a beautiful 5.1 inch, 1080p, Super AMOLED, full HD display. Without a doubt, Samsung makes one of the best displays on the market today. It is the same type of display as previous Samsung devices. They are confident with this choice of display and I agree because it sales well and it has very wide viewing angles. The colors and clarity are just as sharp looking straight on, compared to tilting the screen as much as 178 degrees to where it is pretty much facing as far away from you as possible, but you can still see it.

Samsung, however, did make some changes to their button layout. They kept there oval shaped home button in the middle, and two capacitive buttons along the sides. On previous devices, the left capacitive button was a menu button though. On the Galaxy S5, it is now a recent apps button. Tapping it will show you a list of applications that were recently opened and (probably) still running in the background. But the menu button isn’t gone for good. To access the menu button, you now long press the recent apps button. This will bring up the menu of the current app you are viewing, that is if that app still has a menu. The back button is still a back button, nothing more special there. And long pressing the back button will bring up the Multi-Window app, if it is activated in the settings.

One piece of hardware that we cannot forget to comment about is the battery life. After 6 days of measurable usage, I feel very confident in giving the Samsung Galaxy S5 a high mark in the battery department. I am a moderate to heavy smartphone user on a day to day basis (especially when using a review unit). With that being said, If you consider your self anything less than a moderate user, you will without a doubt have no worries with the 2800 mAh battery in the S5. During the 6 day period, I averaged 15.5 hours of usage, with the screen on for an average of 3 hours, and with roughly 19% battery life left at the end of each day. Doing the math, I could have gotten another 3 hours of battery life from that remaining percentage of battery power. That adds up to an average of 18.5 hours on a full battery. More than enough for a full, regular, day.

The Software
The Samsung Galaxy S5 comes loaded with the most up to date Android operating system to date which is Android Kit Kat 4.4.2. And in pure Samsung fashion, they have overhauled it as much as possible with the Samsung tweaks that they like to call TouchWiz. Without getting onto the soapbox of the differences (good or bad) between manufacture tweaks, let’s just say that I find Samsung’s to be one of the more intrusive.

Samsung does bring a few notable apps to the table though. For example, a fingerprint scanner. Being that the scanner is connected to the home button on the front of the device, Samsung did choose one of the best locations. It’s been tried in other places. Motorola put a fingerprint scanner on the top with the Atrix. HTC put one on the back with the HTC One Max. Neither of those places proved to be the sweet spot. So did Samsung find it? Yes and no. While the home button is probably the best location because you can reach it easily, it was not implemented as well as it could be. To use the fingerprint scanner on the Samsung Galaxy S5, you will have to swipe your finger down over the top of the home button, and the recognition is spotty.

To set it up, you must first get the phone to recognize your fingerprint 8 times. It will warn you if you scan to quickly or if it was a “failed” scan. But even after training it 8 times, when you go to use it, it’s only about a 75% success rate. It’s worth mentioning too that right now, out of the box, the fingerprint scanner can only be used for two things: unlocking your phone or confirming a PayPal transaction. This is a software limitation, so more uses should come with application updates.

One other software application that has been added to Samsung’s bag of tricks is their app called Toolbox. With Toolbox enabled in the settings, you can choose up to five different application shortcuts to be accessible from anywhere at anytime (except while using the camera). Toolbox is a “hovering” dot, if you will, that is translucent most of the time, always on the top of any screen you are viewing, and can be moved anywhere on the screen. The trick is, it’s always there when you need it. When you touch the toolbox dot once, the five shortcuts you’ve chosen from its settings will dropdown onto the screen. You would choose one just as you would from the app drawer or your homescreen, and that app will now open center stage. The fact that you can choose any application, and not just Samsung applications, makes me that much more excited to use the Toolbox. Had it been limited to just Samsung apps, the Toolbox app itself would have been DOA.

Samsung has always tried to revise their looks overall with changes in the icons and other colors throughout the entire phone. They haven’t slimmed down on their customizations of Android, not even in the slightest bit, but they have made it easier to look at. Making your phone “your phone” by customizing it is easier once you’ve learned the proper touch. To learn how to modify the wallpapers and homescreens, as well as other software tricks, take a look at the software tour where I dive into 10 or so of the better parts of the Samsung Galaxy S5.

Final Thoughts
I’m torn. Honestly, I am. As an advanced Android user, I know how to pick out the nit picky parts of the S5 that just aren’t right. There are several of those with the S5. But on the flip side of that coin, I know that Samsung has done a very good job at marketing their devices, they have literally sold millions. Therefore, there is a really good chance that you already own an older Samsung device. With that being said, if you have a Samsung device already, you will notice improvements in both the hardware and software of the Galaxy S5. However, if you are coming from another device such as HTC, LG, Motorola, or even Apple, I can’t suggest that the S5 should be the phone that makes you change manufactures.

All fanboy-ism aside, I’ve owned Samsung products and I still own some now. But I’ve reviewed many others and know that in comparison to whats available out there today, the Galaxy S5 just might let you down. The software is not as responsive as it should be. It hesitates to respond when you touch any of the buttons along the bottom. A delay out of the gate will only get worse over time. Yes software updates can improve it, but the longer you use it and the more apps you install or memory you use, hesitation will continue to exist.

The three best things about the S5 is the camera, the battery, and the screen. The shots are beautiful, and they have done a good job of refining and limiting the settings in the camera software. The screen is 1080p and beautiful. At 5.1 inches, you will definitely notice a difference in clarity against the competitors. The size of the phone, however; it’s just uncanny how much larger the device is despite only gaining one tenth of an inch in screen size. They added certifications to be water and dust resistant, they didn’t have to, but they did. And in the end, it helped make a larger device. The flap covering the USB charging part is very annoying in the way that it just simply will not get out of the way. The battery will definitely last you a full day or longer, I have nothing negative to say on that topic.

I think that if you already own a Galaxy phone of any type from Samsung, the S5 will not let you down. Because you are already use to the Samsung ecosystem, you will not have a problem using this one. If you already own a phone from another manufacturer, you will probably be just a little disappointed and have to settle with it for a 2 year contract.

All the being said, the hardware is great and the software can either be changed or improved over time. If you know how to replace the annoying parts yourself, more power to you. If you want to learn some of those tricks, just let me know. I can recommend the S5 only if you are willing to change the software or your upgrading from a phone that is more than 2 years old and super duper slow.