Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: The March Of Polycarbonate Progress
- Build quality & design
- Battery life
- Storage, wireless, and call quality
- Audio and speaker
- Fingerprint reader
- Heart rate monitor
- Performance and stability
- UI and launcher
- My Magazine
- Camera app
- Ultra power saving mode
- Quick connect
- Private mode
- Other Changes
- Comments (210)
The Galaxy S4 was the most popular Android smartphone of all time. The Galaxy S5 will likely take that title soon enough. Say what you will about Samsung's choice of materials or its design aesthetic, its phones are incredibly popular and well-liked by a great many people. The Galaxy S5 won't cause the faithful to waiver, either - it's an absolute affirmation of the company's commitment to improving its flagship product with every generation. The Galaxy S5 may be iterative, but it's iterative in ways that matter.
The phone is faster, the screen is better, the camera is better, the software is better, the battery life is better, and it even feels better in your hand - Samsung has been hard at work in these areas, and it shows.
However, for all the good, there are caveats. Samsung's software suite is still hilariously bloated, with some legacy features and apps carried over since the Galaxy S III, many of which frankly have no place on a serious smartphone. Take one look at the nigh-innavigable settings menu and your eyes will glaze over. And the creaky, cheap plastic we've come to expect of Galaxy phones is still just as prominent, even if it isn't so slippery and slimy anymore. Samsung hasn't exactly been Johnny on the spot with OS updates lately, either, so who knows what version of Android your S5 will be running a year from now.
A class-leading display and camera, though, along with a much quicker processor and improved battery life (plus waterproofing) are big gains over the Galaxy S4, big enough that I'd call the S5 a more significant iteration than the S4 was over the S III.
In fact, I'm quite enamored by the S5. Even with all its bloat and plastic, it's easier than ever to see why Samsung is reaping success after success with its smartphones: an almost obsessive devotion to improvement, even if it that does entail a handful of gimmicks coming along for the ride. I'd even venture so far as to say that Samsung skeptics might be tempted by this phone - it's that difficult to ignore.
- Display: Best. Screen. Ever. Samsung's Super AMOLED HD panel is the finest display the company has ever produced. It is incredibly bright (and dim if need be), has superb outdoor visibility, viewing angles second to none, and the auto-brightness finally works right. There may be more accurate screens out there, but I can't say I care at this point - Samsung is too far ahead for it to matter.
- Camera: Samsung's enlarged sensor on the Galaxy S5 produces absolutely great images (for a smartphone) when lighting is decent. The real-time HDR preview mode is super cool, too. It supports a huge array of video recording options, including HDR video, and the phase detection auto-focus really does work. Samsung's camera app is also highly usable and intuitive.
- Battery life: The Galaxy S5 has among the best battery life I've ever experienced on an Android device. The standby life is staggeringly good, and even with that bright Super AMOLED display it really does seem to sip power.
- Water resistance: Making a phone more resistant to the elements is hard to classify as anything but a positive, annoying USB port cover aside.
- Speed: Probably the most noticeable upgrade over the S4 is in the realm of performance - the Galaxy S5 is fast. Not any faster than the HTC One M8 that I can tell, and maybe still a touch slower than the Nexus 5, but all in all, it's very quick.
The Not So Good
- Bloat: TouchWiz, even with its much easier-on-the-eyes redesign, still has a lot of carryover bloat from the Galaxy S III and S4. Some of this stuff (air gestures, air view, smart pause, group play) is unabashedly useless and needs to be left behind. Just let it go, Samsung - no one is using this crap.
- Fingerprint scanner: It's a nuisance to use and just feels like an afterthought. Apple's Touch ID is a simple, innovative implementation of biometric verification. Samsung's is just a new coat of paint on the same system that made the Atrix an overnight success. Oh wait.
- Storage: 16GB, 10GB of which are usable. There is no 32GB model of the S5 available in the US on any carrier. In fact, the 32GB S5 is only available in Korea for the time being. Samsung, suck it up and make 32GB the standard level of storage - or make it cheaper - this isn't enough, especially when the camera takes photos that are 7-9MB apiece and video is up to 4K. SD cards are just an excuse for cheaping out on the storage we actually want at this point.
- Plastic: It still feels cheap. Samsung, I beg of you, find a way to make your phones feel like they should retail for $700. Granted, it does feel nicer than the S4 thanks to the dimpled, soft-touch back.
Build quality & design
The Galaxy S5 continues in the Samsung tradition of being unapologetically plastic, and not in a good way. It creaks, it snaps, it groans - like every other Samsung smartphone I've ever used. Also, I dropped my review unit. Whoops. Don't tell.
Once you're past the quality of the materials, though, the Galaxy S5 has many of the positive attributes its predecessor did - plastic grips better in your hand than metal, doesn't get freakishly cold to the touch, and keeps the phone relatively light. Deride Samsung's new band-aid-esque texture on the rear cover as much as you like, but I like it, at least from a tactile perspective. No more slimy, greasy Galaxy - the phone looks and feels relatively clean after a whole day's use. And in white the texture is barely noticeable from a visual perspective.
While they do look more than a bit alike, the design of the S5 does vary from the S4 in a few other significant ways. First, it's more squared off, similar to the Note 3. The home button is rounder. The patterning on the bezel is no longer a diamond weave, but little circles, matching the texture of the rear cover. The speaker grille is more flush against the display glass. The plasti-chrome trim along the profile of the phone now has pronounced banding, though not in the style of the "pages of a book" arrangement on the Note 3.
The camera module has been squared off, as well, and there is a noticeable protrusion where the USB 3.0 type B port is located. Altogether, I'd say the S5 looks more chiseled than the S4, more masculine, even. I will comment that I'm not a fan of whatever happened with the bezels on the front - the amount of space between the display and the edge of the phone has increased substantially on the S5 compared to the S4, both vertically and horizontally. The S4, by comparison, looks purpose-built for compactness, a study in surface area efficiency. It's not a big deal, but it does make the S5 almost kind of look, well, older - albeit in that one, specific way. The growth in size from the S4, too, is substantial, so this wasted bezel space is more than a bit puzzling.
Decidedly modern, however, is the newly-implemented multitasking button. Samsung has finally relinquished its death grip on the hardware menu button - allegedly because consumers were having difficulty finding items hidden in secondary menus only accessible by this key. While the buttons themselves are still mirrored from the standard Android implementation (multitask / home / back instead of the other way round, like it should be), the ouster of the menu button should be greeted with joy by most.
Another feature adapted from the Note 3 is the aforementioned USB 3.0 type B port. This port charges and transfers data more quickly when used with the included type B connector, though it works with the standard microUSB cables as well - just not as quickly as the USB3 spec part. With USB 3.0 type C - a universal adapter - on the horizon, I still question Samsung's judgment here, but I guess most people replace their phones quickly enough for it not be a major issue. This port is covered by a port cover, which are evil.
Pop open the battery door and you'll find the familiar Samsung battery / SD / SIM arrangement. The battery must be removed to replace the SIM or SD card, with the SIM sitting in the bottom tray and the SD card above it. It's still a microSIM, too, as apparently Samsung isn't ready to hop on the nanoSIM bandwagon just yet. As with the S4 Active, the battery cover is lined with a silicone gasket compromising about 95% of that water ingress protection rating, so be sure it's snapped shut securely any time you decide to take it off.
How Samsung continues to improve on its Super AMOLED technology frankly befuddles me at this point. The Galaxy S5 has the best screen I've ever seen on a smartphone, bar none. I can confirm this because it passes the ultimate test: small black text on a white background in broad daylight, at an angle, with extensive fingerprint smudges. The text remained readable even at very shallow angles on a sunny southern California day.
That's because the S5 allegedly achieves an incredible 700 nits of brightness when set to automatic mode while outdoors. I compared it to an HTC One M8, which rather quickly failed the above test, and the difference in brightness and contrast was very noticeable. Not only that, the S5 maintained its visibility hugely better when tilted at an angle, horizontal or vertical, while the M8 quickly became almost impossible to see.
I can't imagine the S5's battery will last terribly long in this state of hyperbrightness (the effect of which is even further enhanced by the contrast of the Adapt Display mode), but the very fact that it can do it is downright impressive. We've all been there - covering our smartphones with our off hand to read a text message or an email. The Galaxy S5 is the first phone I've used where I'm not immediately tempted to do that.
S4 vs S5 on auto-brightness in shade on a sunny day
The catch on this ultra-bright setting is that it needs to be in automatic mode - the phone's maximum luminance peaks much lower if you set the brightness manually (likely for good reason, such as your battery life). Thankfully, auto-brightness mode is now much brighter by default in most situations, so it's actually usable, hooray!
But the Galaxy S5 doesn't just do crazy-bright: it also does crazy-dim. At its lowest brightness, the S5's display is truly not visible outdoors, or even in brightly lit room. This level, unlike the highest brightness, can only be achieved by turning off auto-brightness and using the slider manually. The brightness is so low that you could easily use the S5 in bed next to a sleeping spouse in a pitch-black room. This really is a next-level screen.
It's odd just how little Samsung is really saying about the display in its marketing materials, too - it has every right to be proud of what seems to be an incredible technical achievement. Given how easy it was to make fun of AMOLED's lackluster brightness, intense oversaturation, and resolution limits just a few short years ago, it's kind of shocking to believe it's now leading the mobile display race.
How's this for battery life: 2 hours of screen-on time with mobile data... over the course of three days (as in 72 hours). I thought HTC's battery life on the One M8 was impressive. This is impressive-er. I don't know what HTC and Samsung have discovered or implemented that's giving such amazing standby longevity, but I am oh so thankful they've figured it out.
That said, I think the most heavy users will still be limited by their screen-on figure over any such improvements. If you're clocking in 4 or more hours a day of screen time - unless you're cranking that brightness way down and are on Wi-Fi constantly - you're probably still going to feel the squeeze as the sun sets. That's just kind of how things are without a larger battery, and while the S5's 2800mAh pack is nothing to scoff at, it's still 400mAh behind Sony's Xperia Z2. Of course, your mileage will vary, etc.
For moderate phone users like myself, though, the S5 is absolutely liberating. I charged it on a Friday night and didn't have it back on the charger again until Monday evening, and still with a solid 5% to spare! Which according to Samsung is enough to get by for 12 hours if you activate ultra power saving mode. (More on that feature later.)
Of course, the Samsung faithful will point out as always that unlike pretty much any of the competition, the S5's battery is swappable, so there's that option, too.
A word of caution: I did have at least one incident in which my Galaxy S5 refused to go to sleep and lost 50% of its charge sitting overnight. There are numerous reports of similar behavior from users and reviewers out there, but no one seems to have pinned down one specific cause for the issue yet. Since rebooting the phone and charging it up again, however, the problem has not returned.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
It seems American carriers have all but given up on the 32GB models when it comes to Samsung phones - none are offering the Galaxy S5 in anything but the standard 16GB trim, which is a bit of a shame. Given the rather draconian restrictions on SD cards in Android 4.4, the microSD slot provides heavily asterisked headroom to users with lots of content on their devices. At this point, Samsung really should not be continuing to use the SD card slot as a reason to cheap out on internal storage - especially when the 16GB model ships with barely 10GB of usable space. At the least, Samsung should offer more competitive pricing on 32GB and 64GB models so carriers will actually stock them. As it is now, you have to buy a gray-market Korean Galaxy S5 if you want one with more than 16GB of storage in the US, if you can even find one. That is definitely a bit of a bummer, especially when phones like the One M8 are shipping with 32GB of storage as standard now.
Wireless performance on my S5 review unit has been just what I would expect - excellent. I had no issues with signal or dropped calls, and data speeds on both LTE and Wi-Fi were consistently strong. The Galaxy S5 also supports Wi-Fi AC and has two antennas for MIMO to enhance wireless speeds, a feature HTC's One M8 lacks. I'm not sure it really makes much of a practical difference for most people, but the capability for more speed is always good, I suppose.
Call quality on the S5 I used was pretty normal, though Samsung's noise suppression was apparently pretty aggressive according to at least one person I talked to on the phone. It wasn't described as bad, just different.
Audio and speaker
The Galaxy S5 uses the same basic Snapdragon 801 you'll find in the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2, so it also uses the same internal audio processing gear. As a result, the sound from the S5's headphone jack is absolutely great - Qualcomm is doing a stellar job with its Hexagon DSP, and music is sounding the best it ever has coming out of a smartphone. You won't be let down here.
The external speaker is another story. I'd go far as to say that it's actually a small step down from last year's speaker on the Galaxy S4. This, I think, has to do with the waterproofing on the S5. With that rubber gasket and presumably some form of water protection for the speaker driver itself, Samsung seems to be struggling to eek out additional volume. The S5 actually sounds a bit quieter than the Galaxy S4, though the difference isn't massive. The quality of the audio itself seems basically comparable to last year's phone.
This is something of a letdown, as the Galaxy S4 never had a great external speaker to start with, though it was generally louder than those of its competitors (particularly LG, who continue to have among the worst external speakers of any major Android OEM).
The Galaxy S5's camera has something of a split personality. In favorable lighting, it produces the best images of any Android smartphone I've ever used. That full 16MP resolution is absolutely taken advantage of, and for the first time I feel like I can take a picture with my phone and crop it to frame subjects tighter or more interestingly. On any other phone, cropping an image immediately makes all that noise and processing extremely visible, and presto-amazo: you've got a ruined photo. On the S5, the 16MP resolution (photo resolution is 5312x2988) coupled with the larger sensor means more detail is preserved* and exploitable when it comes time for editing. (*Except in low light, where the S5 actually seems to excel in destroying detail.)
Start with this photo I snapped of BMW's upcoming hybrid supercar, the i8, being tested by journalists on a local road.
Cool car, right? Too bad the photo was taken such that it's absolutely tiny - you can barely see it! Now, let's crop it to a more usable framing.
Hey look - now you can actually see the car in some semblance of detail, and without having ruined the picture to the point where it's plainly obvious it was taken with a smartphone. Granted, go full zoom on any smartphone photo and you'll see issues - the texture on the foliage furthest away on the hill opposite the road in this photo, for example, is mushed up all to hell by the softening process Samsung employs.
Still, had I taken this photo with the One M8, cropping it this far would result in a totally garbage image. Crop room is important - especially when you're dealing with a fixed lens. 4MP would be fine if it came with a 4x zoom, but until then, I'd like all the pixels you can give me, thank you very much.
Unfortunately, the S5's camera then proceeds to fall flat on its face in low-light / night conditions - the results are downright cringe-worthy. In fact, the Galaxy S4 even takes better dark shots than the S5. Just look at these shots comparing the two phones, it's pretty obvious which is worse.
That rather significant drawback aside, the Galaxy S5's camera really is quite impressive. Samsung's new HDR mode allows you to see what your HDR photo will look like through the viewfinder in real time - a feature no one else is boasting at this point. The HDR photos themselves are a major improvement over last year's, too, something Samsung is chalking up to the advanced image processing in the S5. That advanced image processing also allows the Galaxy S5 to use HDR mode while taking video, too.
No HDR vs HDR
The Galaxy S5 does record quite an array of video, too - up to 60FPS at 1080p, 30FPS at UHD (2160p), and 120FPS for slow motion at 1/2, 1/4, or 1/8 playback speed (though only at 720p).
HDR mode photo
Samsung's selective focus feature, similar to solutions by HTC and Google, allows you to take a photo and then decide how you want the focus to appear. Unlike those solutions, though, you cannot select a focal point - Samsung's implementation finds the object you are probably trying to focus on, and then allows you to select near, far, or pan focus modes. This is indeed more limiting, and while it is a "one tap" solution (once you select the proper mode), there is still substantial processing time required once you hit the shutter button. And it doesn't always work. Samsung says the focal point of the photo needs to be at least 1.5 feet from the camera, and the background at least 3 times further away from the subject than that. If it fails to render a selective focus photo, you'll get a toast notification saying so, but I think the error should be more prominent, to be honest, since it still takes the picture anyway.
The advantage to Samsung's implementation is that the resulting photos are full-sized - there is no loss of resolution, and there is no destruction of information when you save the picture in a particular focus "mode." You can go back and change it as many times as you want. HTC and Google's solutions, on the other hand, produce an edited version after the effects have been applied, and you're required to go back to the original if you decide you want to change the focus again later. Granted, Samsung's solution is nowhere near as customizable as Google's, and not as quick and easy as HTC's (you have to actually enable selective focus mode for it to work). Also, the files are huge - shots in selective focus mode are around 20MB apiece. The results, though, seem largely comparable to the other methods - here are images from all three. The top is Samsung's selective focus tool.
Samsung has also integrated a new "remote viewfinder" feature into the camera app - just turn on NFC and hit the appropriate item in the additional options menu, and you can connect via Wi-Fi direct to another Galaxy device (I tried it with a One M8 and it just sent me to a dead Play Store link). That device then acts as the viewfinder for your S5, as well as a controller for all the camera features. This could be useful with a tablet, I guess? I'm not really sure I quite see what this is for on a smartphone, but it would make a lot more sense on a Galaxy Zoom or Galaxy Camera device.
I've not used Apple's Touch ID system on the iPhone 5S, but at this point, almost every review I've read compares it favorably to the Galaxy S5's swipe sensor, and all I have to say about that is: I would really hope so.
Right off the bat, even setting up the scanner was a bit frustrating - I had to go through the initial read process twice before I got it to record my print (you have to swipe numerous times so it can develop a good, averaged picture of what your fingerprint looks like).
Once configured, level of finger-moisture (read: "none" is the only acceptable answer) and angle right (it only works at a single angle, unlike Apple's Touch ID), the Galaxy S5's fingerprint scanner is fairly reliable. If you're like me and kind of lazy / not really paying attention when you go to unlock your phone, it's... not. On many occasions I've hit the lock-out limit, which then requires you to enter your backup password. By this point, you are likely ready to throw the phone at something and / or someone.
The very act of using it is simply too much work when you have knowledge that Apple's Touch ID implementation exists. With Samsung's method, unless the phone is lying on a surface, you must use two hands to unlock your phone. One to hold it, and the other to press the home or power button and then slide a finger. I tried recording my thumbprint at an angle to allow for one-handed unlocking, but the thing is so finicky that once I had registered it I was rarely able to replicate the angle well enough to unlock the phone. With Apple's method, only your thumb is necessary, and all you have to do is press and release the home button - no sliding, it works at multiple angles, and only one hand needed to operate. Granted, Apple's method is also patented, and probably would require a larger home button than Samsung is currently using anyway.
This may all sound hyperbolic, but user experience is so key to this sort of feature - you turn on your phone's screen dozens of times a day (well, I assume you do, maybe not), and if this becomes an exercise in frustration versus one of simplicity, you are not going to associate happy thoughts with your Galaxy S5. This is almost certainly why Samsung has chosen not to have users set up the feature out of the box - they know it isn't very good. And further yet why the default period for the fingerprint scanner lock to activate is something like 10 minutes.
Call me old-fashioned, curmudgeonly, or demanding, but I sort of hail from the "do it right or don't do it at all" school of thought when it comes to features like this. The Galaxy S5's fingerprint scanner is simply not good to use. They brought it to market to compete with Touch ID on the iPhone 5S (which apparently isn't all that amazing, either), and considering how much Samsung has moved away from the "follow Apple" mentality in recent years, this is somewhat disheartening.
Samsung hasn't featured the fingerprint scanner in any of its major ad campaigns for the S5, either (at least in the US), which is telling, I think. For the tech-obsessed or the paranoid, this is a fun (slash frustrating) toy to play with. For the rest of us, stick to your pin code or your pattern - this isn't worth the trouble.
Funnily enough, Samsung actually rates fingerprint mode as "medium to high security" on the lockscreen options, with a password ranked as more secure ("high"). As you probably know, the scanner can also be used with PayPal (using a separate version of the app you have to update through the Samsung app store - yuck) if you so desire.
Heart rate monitor
Samsung's heart rate monitor is an interesting feature, one that really does stand out in the smartphone space as unique. Using a combination of infrared, visible, and witchcraft-light, the small cluster of sensor-things on the back of the phone alongside the LED flash can tell you how fast your heart is beating. Neat!
As far as I can tell, it works just fine, too. I compared results against a wrist-strap blood pressure monitor and the S5 generally was within a few BPM of the former's reading, though I did get a few erratic ones here and there.
Positioning your finger on the monitor isn't foolproof, but once you figure out what angle seems to work (I find about 45 degrees off-center with moderate pressure is best), getting consistent and quick results is not difficult. The readings also generally matched with what I got from the Gear Fit (when it worked, which it doesn't always), which uses the same technology, just on your wrist instead of a fingertip.
While I am rather unclear on why you'd want to regularly measure your heart rate on your phone (as opposed to a fitness tracker like Gear Fit, which makes a bit more sense), especially when getting accurate results apparently requires you to be still and quiet, at the very least it's a fun, functional party trick. I'm also not sure how Gear Fit's hear rate monitor can be accurate while you're moving, but the S5's can't. A question for another review, I suppose.
But all in all, the feature seems to work reasonably well, even if I would personally probably never end up actually using it.
The Galaxy S5 is rated IP67 - meaning it can survive up to a meter of water submersion for up to 30 minutes. In reality, numerous reviewers have shown it is capable of even greater depths and duration, but one meter and 30 minutes is all Samsung is actually promising. Because Samsung is not explicit about the level of protection from pressurized water jets (IP66 and 66K), either, I'd also advise keeping it away from powerful faucets, hoses, or even your shower. The effects of water damage aren't always immediately evident, so don't take the phone's immediate survival for a complete lack of liquid ingress.
This liquid protection, though, relies on your adherence to two basic responsibilities as an S5 owner: ensuring the battery door is fully shut, and keeping the USB port cover closed. As was famously illustrated with the S4 Active, it's the former that people really seem to have an issue with, and so the Galaxy S5 provides a reminder to check the status of the rear cover every time the phone boots up. I think that's a fair precaution. A similar warning for the USB port cover appears when the device is removed from a charger. These notifications cannot be disabled, though I wouldn't call them more than a minor nuisance.
The "6" in IP67 also means the Galaxy S5 is completely dustproof, but personally I wouldn't go dropping it in a bag of flour any time soon - there are still plenty of nooks and crannies to gum up.
Waterproofing has probably been one of the most-requested smartphone features in recent memory, and given the current trend, I think it's here to stay. I will say, though, that the day we come up with a way to have a water resistant phone without using dinky little port covers for the data / power connections cannot come soon enough. Port covers are evil incarnate.
Overall, though, I think Samsung's doing a justice to consumers here - people break their $700 phones far too often as is, and protection from toilets / sinks / pools / beaches will likely save many a Galaxy S5 from an early demise, even if it does mean we have to deal with fiddly port covers. I honestly would not be terribly surprised if the next iPhone was water-resistant at this point.
Oh, and as someone kindly reminded me earlier this week, water ingress protection is not steam ingress protection. Just because something's IP67 doesn't mean you can take it in the shower repeatedly - steam can get places water can't. So be careful, and probably avoid spontaneous hot tub diving with your phone.
Performance and stability
The Galaxy S5 is markedly faster than the S4, which is arguably among the slowest of 2013's flagship devices. Whether it was Samsung's TouchWiz or the Snapdragon 600 chipset powering it, I don't know, but the S4 simply did not age well. If there were one major consideration for making the jump from S4 to S5, I would have to single out performance. I used a Galaxy S4 as my primary phone for the past couple of months, and the speed (really, the lack thereof) drove me mad after coming from the superbly swift Nexus 5.
That said, the S5 feels no faster than HTC's One M8 (it might actually be a tinge slower), despite using a chipset clocked around 100MHz higher in the US. (The Galaxy S5 uses the AC variant of the Snapdragon 801, the HTC One uses the AB, which is slightly slower. [Source]) Running apps side by side on the two, neither was consistently quicker, though the One M8 seemed to load images more quickly on Wi-Fi, but just barely.
One thing that continues to irk me is Samsung's default mapping of the home button double-tap to S Voice. This feature causes a designed delay after hitting the home button as it waits for a second tap, meaning it takes a good half second longer than it should to go to the homescreen, making the user feel as though the phone is slow or lagging. Go into S Voice and disable the double tap feature, though, and the delay goes away. Samsung, honestly, how many people are really using S Voice? I see journalists left and right mistaking this home button mapping for "lag," and have since the Galaxy S III. Just turn it off, guys.
The one other performance hiccup I ran into was Samsung's My Magazine panel on the homescreen, which is abnormally slow to load when you swipe to or from it. I ended up disabling the feature.
As for stability, I ran into no abnormal crashes while using the S5 - it seems pretty solid. One odd behavior I did encounter was some kind of strange capacitive button glitch. On multiple occasions, for no reason, the back button was engaged repeatedly (I could feel the haptic feedback, even though my finger wasn't on the button). It would engage about 4 or 5 times, about 1 or 2 seconds apart, and then stop. This happened maybe a half-dozen times in my 2 weeks with the phone, and it is indeed rather strange, if relatively harmless.
UI and launcher
From a homescreen-visual standpoint, Samsung's new launcher doesn't look all that different from the old one. But don't be fooled - changes are indeed afoot.
Pull down the notification bar and you'll see the quick toggle widgets have been redesigned to be circular on a flat turquoise backdrop, signaling the change in Samsung's TouchWiz aesthetic we first saw on the new Galaxy Tab Pro line.
The app drawer has been simplified, the tabs for apps, widgets, and downloaded apps are gone, instead replaced by a single 3-dot menu button in the top right corner, lending the drawer a cleaner look. Samsung has a whole lot more 3-dot menus peppered throughout its suite of apps, too, owing to the loss of the hardware menu button.
The app drawer now allows you to hide apps, as well, as opposed to merely disabling them. Finally, the alphabetical list view mode has been removed, because seriously who would ever use that.
The settings menu has seen a complete overhaul, and is now grid-based. I think Samsung's judgment here has been questionable at best. With all of the grid headers expanded, there are 61 settings icons to choose from. If you collapse the Quick Settings panel (all the icons in it are redundant), this number drops to a mere 49 different icons, but still: Samsung, this is too much. Switching to the list or tab views does almost nothing to help you navigate this labyrinth, either. Someone really needs to go in and figure out how to fix this, because right now it's bordering on irritating. Here is the current settings menu, pane by pane:
The lockscreen should be largely familiar to you, and it has the same basic features you found on the S4 and Note 3 - minus lockscreen widgets, which Samsung has apparently disabled on the S5. Oh, and it doesn't say "Life companion" by default anymore, because Samsung probably realized that was embarrassingly corny.
The aesthetic of the new TouchWiz is largely similar to what we saw on the Tab Pros - lots more flat design, circles, and color blocking. For the most part, TouchWiz feels more out of the way than it has in previous iterations, and things just seem a bit less busy. Even Samsung's homescreen editing feels more... normal - long press on an empty area, and it zooms out to a management interface with icons for wallpaper, widgets, and home screen settings along the bottom, just like the Google Experience launcher. Interesting.
Gone also is the multitasking interface that previously came up when you long-pressed the home button, because there is now a dedicated multitasking button which reveals an interface similar to the one in previous TouchWiz versions, minus the Google shortcut. Instead, long-pressing the home button on the S5 goes to Google Now, taking the number of required actions from two to one. Also interesting!
On the whole, I would say the new TouchWiz looks a lot nicer than the old one. It feels modern, fresh, and simplified (aside from the settings menu). Not to mention a lot faster. Sense 6, by comparison, does not give me quite this feeling, though this is an entirely subjective point, one that is very much personal. If it's me you're asking, though, I think the new TouchWiz looks better than Sense 6, and considerably. I love the bright, colorful tones and even the mildly corny bubble animation when you unlock the screen. I think Samsung is doing some legitimately good UI work these days. They've also made my job of reviewing easier by seriously cutting down on the number of gimmicky features to talk about.
But seriously, cut out the corny touch sounds, Samsung. I can hear someone using one of your phones across the room - that bubble "pop" is about as endearing as nails on a chalkboard.
My Magazine is basically BlinkFeed but worse. Not that BlinkFeed is a work of art, but Samsung really did just seem to do this because HTC did it. I'm not sure making it part of the homescreen UI by default was a great idea, as I imagine the number of people who are actually going to use it is fairly low. And when I say it's basically BlinkFeed, I mean a much, much more basic version of it. You have 13 news categories to choose from (no individual outlet curation) and a multitude of different social networks.
My Magazine is super-duper incredibly bare-bones, and all of the news aspect is actually supplied via Flipboard. When you tap on a story, it opens in the Flipboard app. My Magazine is basically a Flipboard widget. Except with fewer news sources, social networks, less customization, and no paginated animation. It also only holds one story for each news category in the widget, which seems, well, dumb.
Samsung, if you're going to try to kind of sort of copy a competitor's feature, don't do such a half-ass job. And if you do, don't enable it by default. My Magazine just isn't good - disabling it should be on your to-do list as soon as you get the phone. It is truly shameless UI fluff.
Samsung has continued to refine its camera app, and I think it's currently among the best one shipping on any Android phone if you're really into taking photos. Samsung doesn't play to the minimalism Google and Motorola are pushing in their camera UIs, and this is one of those areas where I think it's OK to have a busy display. Cameras show a lot of information for a reason - because there are a lot of things you can adjust and settings you want to know the status of.
Samsung allows you to place up to 3 customizable quick settings in the left toolbar of the camera app, with selective focus and HDR being the default two included (rightly so, I'd say, as both are pretty nice features). Tap the settings icon, and you get a large 4-column grid with icons to help identify specific settings quickly and easily. This is how a camera should be: all of the settings are readily accessible with a single tap - not buried in submenu upon submenu. It makes the camera on the Galaxy S5 incredibly usable compared to, say, the Nexus 5 or HTC One M8.
The rear / front camera switch is the only other permanent button in the left toolbar. On the right, there is a video record button, the shutter button, and a mode button. Samsung has greatly simplified the modes on the Galaxy S5. All of the burst shot features that were previously discrete modes have been combined into a single mode called "Shot and more" - this includes the best photo, best face, eraser, drama shot, and panning shot modes. Take the burst sequence, and then apply the effect of your choosing immediately after the image is processed or later in the editing app. Samsung's software intelligently determines which of the modes can be applied to a given burst sequence.
Numerous other modes have actually been removed from the app (Samsung claims they were ones people rarely used), but beauty face, panorama, virtual tour [new], and dual camera remain. Other legacy modes can be downloaded from Samsung's app store, like animated photo, surround shot, sports shot, and sound & shot.
Virtual tour is by far the most interesting - think of it like a walking photosphere. Turn on virtual tour mode, and you're given a centering dot to position the first photo in the sequence. You can then turn left, right, or walk forward to take the next shot. You can continue in this fashion for up to 30 individual snapshots, which are then stitched into a video sequence. I have to say, this is actually legitimately useful. As someone looking for an apartment right now, being able to visit a place and do a quick walkaround with this feature gives me a way to organize a visual overview of a particular place without any extra work, as opposed to taking a bunch of photos and then sorting them out later. The stitching isn't perfect, and it doesn't work with HDR mode, but it can process 30 images into a 1080p video (MP4 format) in under half a minute. Basically, think of it like street view for your phone. I can't help but wonder if Google is working on a similar feature to augment the existing (and awesome) photo sphere mode in its own camera app. Granted, you could just take a video, but this results in a substantially more compact file (<20MB).
Feature #1 I love about the new gallery? It finally puts all of your Google+ web albums into a single freaking folder. On my GS4, there are dozens of worthless date-labeled albums synced from my Google account. On the GS5, they're lumped into one big, happy folder like they should be (unless you're in the default Time view, which does sort them into dates).
The gallery app is also now much, much faster. That app was one of the slowest I'd ever used on the GS4, but the new version on the S5 is speedy as can be. The restyled app now has object detection, too - it can see scenery, documents, cars, and flowers. That's certainly a very specific selection. It seems to work reasonably well, though, apart from scenery, which included, for me, a picture of a chandelier, some headphones, and the ground. Well, I guess that last one could technically qualify (not that I'd call the cement "scenic").
The built-in editor doesn't really boast any interesting changes - there's a new "Enhance" button that basically makes some standard adjustments to your image to increase contrast and correct white balance and brightness, but I didn't notice much else going on there.
Ultra power saving mode
Everybody's really been talking up Samsung's ultra power saving mode, testing it, showing battery life screenshots, and everything else under the sun. So, in the interest of not being horribly redundant, I'm just going to keep this section to the basics.
Ultra power saving mode is quite neat - it throttles the processor and GPU, turns off animations, haptic feedback, Bluetooth, LTE, Wi-Fi, sync, turns the screen grayscale, lowers the brightness, reduces the display timeout, and gives you a much more limited launcher. You can only use a small selection of apps (Twitter and Google+ are supported for some reason, but no Gmail?), control almost no settings, and your notifications aren't synced. You can still use the stock browser app, though, and make and receive calls or text messages (via Samsung's SMS app, no Hangouts support).
Samsung estimates that per 10% of battery life remaining, you'll be able to get 24 hours of standby time in this mode. Impressive. All the data points I've seen basically say this is true, too, so I didn't bother with a full-on test of the feature.
Quick connect is Samsung's way of converging all your various wireless sharing and communication options with other devices into a single menu. The idea is quite good, in theory. In practice, it seems half-baked. It couldn't detect my PC's DLNA share despite being on the same network, though the phone itself was able to be discovered just fine. It did detect my Roku 3 as a potential mirroring device, but when I actually tried to mirror a picture or video to it, nothing happened. It also detected by Bluetooth speaker, so I guess that's nice. It couldn't find my Galaxy S4, though (all sharing features were on, and it's on the same network), nor did it know that my Gear Fit was connected.
Considering that AT&T has opted not to include the S Finder / Quick Connect bar in the notification area on its model of the phone, the only place you can find Quick Connect mode is as one of the notification bar toggles, quite far down the list (there is no app or setting shortcut). Overall, it seems like a case in point for the overly saturated and poorly-explained state of sharing features on Samsung devices - Quick Connect doesn't really seem to help simplify anything, though it also seems a bit broken in its current state.
Private mode is pretty simple - if you put files in the private storage area while private mode is on, and you then turn off private mode, those files are hidden. If you want to access them, you need to turn on private mode, enter your pin, pattern, password, or fingerprint, and then go to the private folder. An interesting idea, if a sketchy one, but there's undoubtedly demand for this kind of security.
It works with the gallery and file manager apps, as well as a few others. It's not exactly intuitive, though - going to a specific photo and opening the options drop down doesn't show the "move to private" option, you have to go to the grid view of an album and long-press photos for it to appear. It just is not very user-friendly, which pretty much ensures that most people will end up confused by it and thus not use it.
Not to generalize, but it does have the feel of many of Samsung's first-generation features: half-finished and convoluted. Try again on this one, Samsung.
As always, I'll try to provide you a general list of things Samsung has changed that you may not have otherwise noticed. Please note that I am comparing between an AT&T Galaxy S4 running the latest KitKat update and an AT&T Galaxy S5.
- Like Sprint and Verizon's, AT&T's S5 doesn't currently include the Download Booster feature, though it allegedly will come in an OTA update.
- Reading mode is gone in display options.
- Since someone asked, the haptic feedback seems slightly less powerful than that of the Galaxy S4, but barely.
- The "adapt sound" feature has been removed.
- You can now select the default music effect control panel (Samsung's SoundAlive or the standard Android MusicFX).
- Smart scroll is gone.
- The air gesture for quick glance is gone, and air gestures are now called air browse.
- "Edit after screen capture" toggle is gone.
- Toggle for recommended apps toolbar in notification bar when headphones are connected has been added.
- Toggle for increased ringer volume when phone is in pocket has been removed.
- Dock and S View cover options have been removed (there is an S View cover coming soon, maybe it'll get its own app?)
- One-handed operation mode has been added (a la Note 2 / 3).
- The stock Downloads app has been removed (now managed in the My Files app, which has been totally redone).
- Many stock apps have been given flattened-out makeovers, like the calendar, phone, calculator, gallery, etc.
- There's a new note-taking app called "Memo," which presumably replaces S Memo.
- S Note app has been added (from Note line).
- Samsung Hub is gone.
- Story Album is gone.
- WatchON is gone (no more video store), replaced by Smart Remote app.
- A few apps like Group Play and S Translator are no longer installed by default, but show as updates when you sign into the Samsung App Store. Beware - for some, once they're installed, they're system apps.
- The floating toolbox feature from the Note 3 has been added.
The Galaxy S5 is a bit like a Corvette - if you can get past the plastic and the stigma (TouchWiz), it really is a great high-end smartphone. Well, it isn't as pretty as a Corvette I suppose. Well, maybe as pretty as a C4.
After spending a couple of weeks with it, though, I've come to love the Galaxy S5 in spite of its build quality and software bloat. Between the display, the camera, the water-resistance, and the battery life, Samsung builds a strong case on the merits for the S5 - I can't say I miss the HTC One M8 a bit after using this phone.
But like so many things, personal preference is what it boils down to. More than anything, Samsung's software and build materials keep away the naysayers, and there really isn't enough change on those fronts to bring around the diehard haters. But if you're concerned less with the aesthetic and philosophy and more with the on-the-ground experience, I think the Galaxy S5 will be a pleasant surprise, even for Samsung skeptics. It's not revolutionary, but Samsung shows that even when they're not trying to change the game, they can still legitimately improve in areas where some of their competitors are stagnating.
All that said, the S5 still isn't ideal. The lack of storage, the cheap plastic, Samsung's overloaded software, and its less-than-lightning-quick history with OS updates are all things to consider. If you're holding out for a more stock experience or premium materials, I'd wait and see what Motorola and LG are going to do. For the time being, though, I think this is the best Android phone you can buy on an "all things considered" level. The Galaxy S5 has a lot going for it, and I think Samsung has delivered its best smartphone experience to date.