Samsung Galaxy S5 hands-on: a winning formula gets refined
Finally, after a lot of long, painful waiting, the Galaxy S5 is here. Samsung has unpacked its newest flagship Android smartphone, and as you can imagine, the excitement is just electrifying! However, getting unpacked was the easy part for the Galaxy S5. What remains to be seen now is if the gigantic expectations for this ambitious smartphone are going to be fulfilled.
The reality in the Android industry right now is that Samsung is pretty much the king of the hill, but it can easily be seen that the competition has started to slowly and surely catch up with the South Korean giant. It's also not a secret that the company's last flagship, the Galaxy S4, could hardly live up to the success and hype surrounding its predecessor. And so, here it is, a bit earlier than usual, but still accompanied by tremendous fanfare - the Samsung Galaxy S5 has come to seize the throne and attempt to keep it safe for yet another year.
Let's face it - appearance has never been a particularly strong feature of the Galaxy series, and it looks like this trend isn't going to end with the Samsung Galaxy S5. That's not to say that the Galaxy S5 is an unattractive phone, though. Quite the contrary - the newest Samsung flagship has a certain level of charm added on top of what was already present with the GS4.
The front side of the phone is just typical Samsung - you cannot mistake that uninspired, but quite approachable design language.The back cover is where the fun starts, as the manufacturer has gone for a rather different material than was present with the GS4 and GS3. Instead of the usual smooth and glossy plastic, the Samsung Galaxy S5 utilizes more of a matte finish that's decorated with a nice, dotted pattern. It's a warm design - one that doesn't really stand out from the crowd, but one that's also nicely-refined and having a nice and inviting feel. It's not the typical soft-touch coating that you may be familiar with from many other Android smartphones, such as the Nexus 5. Instead, it's a cleaner and a little bit more sophisticated finish that adds a certain bit of character to the exterior of the Samsung Galaxy S5.
If you thought that Samsung is going to switch to using on-screen navigation keys, instead of its usual combination of a physical home button and capacitive manu and back ones - you were wrong. The same configuration is available on the Galaxy S5, and we don't really mind it, seeing that most third-party applications are yet to be updated with support for KitKat's Immersive Mode (a mode that allows third-party apps to occupy the full screen space, hiding the otherwise ever-present on-screen navigation keys). The interesting thing about the home key is that it has an integrated fingerprint scanner, which is of the swipe type. This means that you'll now be able to unlock your phone by swiping your finger through the home key. That's similar to what you can already do with the iPhone 5s, but also different, because the iPhone's fingerprint scanner only requires you to touch it, whereas the Galaxy S5's one needs you to do a swipe gesture. Whether this type of unlocking mechanism is going to work as nicely as on the 5s remains to be seen.
In addition to the above-mentioned dotted pattern, the back side also houses the new, 16 MP camera with LED flash and - surprise, surprise - an integrated heart-rate monitor. Yep, the Galaxy S5 enables you to check your heart-rate just by putting your finger next to its camera, but more on that later. Last, but certainly not least, the Galaxy S5 comes touting an IP67 certification. It's water- and dust-proof!
So, Samsung would have probably made a great mistake if it didn't upgrade the screen on this new Galaxy S smartphone, and we guess that's why it did! The GS5 comes with a slightly larger, 5.1" screen (vs 5" for the GS4), which, however, still sports a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels. To tell you the truth, we aren't at all disappointed by this fact, seeing that the 1080p resolution already manages to deliver an exceptional image clarity and pixel density on this screen size. Besides, this also means that users are going to be able to siphon more juice out of the 2800mAh battery, not to mention that system performance will also be better, as opposed to if it had a QHD screen. Indeed, everything is extremely easy and comfortable to read and view on this display, so no worries here, as far as resolution goes.
A major disadvantage of Samsung's Super AMOLED panels has been their relative color inaccuracy. Admittedly, the company has worked to improve the color balance and other quality parameters of the AMOLED screens that it has been gracing its smartphones with, but there's still room for improvement. Now, we can't really draw any conclusions here as far as the Galaxy S5's screen quality is concerned, due to the fact that we haven't done any scientific measurements, and the handset has probably been running a non-final version of the software, but we do believe that the Galaxy S5's display is going to be visibly better compared to the one of its predecessor. We're fairly confident that color accuracy has been significantly improved, although it can still be seen that those otherwise attractive colors are somewhat unnaturally vibrant. What's fairly impressive about the screen, however, is the fact that it can get really bright or dim, depending on the situation -- the massive range spans from 2 nits all the way up to 500 nits, which is darn impressive. Viewing angles are just as excellent as they have always been on Samsung's Super AMOLED displays.
Interface and Functionality
Samsung's TouchWiz user interface has always been a controversial part of its Galaxy smartphones, due to its overly colorful appearance and relative lack of polish and consistency. Well, we're happy to report that the Galaxy S5 is introducing a new and improved version of TouchWiz, and while it won't put an end to inconsistency and some other issues, it's definitely a much-appreciated improvement over what we had in the previous TouchWiz version.
Coming straight with Android 4.4 KitKat, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is running a flatter and more simplified version of the familiar UI. Icons, buttons and other interface elements have all been simplified, in order to make the software look more modern. Colors have also been toned down, so while still appearing fresh and all, TouchWiz is now having a slightly more grown-up look to it. It's obviously a bit more polished as well, seeing that it finally has stuff like icon tap effects (that's the visual effect that let you know that you've actually tapped an icon). Other than that, though, the interface seems to be working quite similarly to what we know from the Galaxy S4. You have your numerous homescreen pages where you can put all your stuff, but now there's also a new homescreen page that basically houses the My Magazine functionality that we already know from other Samsung devices. In short, it is a news and social media aggregator, similar to HTC's BlinkFeed and other Flipboard-style applications. The main menu (app launcher) is pretty similar to the old one, though it does feel slightly refined, while core applications, such as phone and messaging, have their traditional layout - so no breakthrough changes there.
There are some major new additions to the software features of the Galaxy S4. For example, there's the new fingerprint sensor, which is built right into the home button, similarly to Apple's implementation with the iPhone 5s. However, the GS5's fingerprint sensor is of the swipe type, meaning that you have to swipe, instead of touch it. For the time being, unlocking your phone is pretty much all that you can use the fingerprint scanner for, but Samsung notes that it's currently working with PayPal to enable easy payment authorisation using the fingerprint sensor. We aren't told exactly when we should expect that functionality to become commercially available.
Processor and memory
The Samsung Galaxy S5 comes with a much improved processor in the form of the Snapdragon 801. That's no typo right there -- we're, indeed, talking about a new Qualcomm chip. The new chipset is still based on quad Krait 400 cores and an Adreno 330 GPU, but both have seen some noteworthy improvements. According to the manufacturer, we're talking a 14% increase in performance the case of the Krait cores (over the Snapdragon 800), and a pretty significant, 28% boost in graphical oomph. Last, but not least, the new chip brings forth a 45% improvement in camera sensor processing speed. There's only other device in the world with this chip as of this writing -- the newly-announced Sony Xperia Z2. Anyway...
In terms of memory, there are 2 gigs of RAM in the GS5, which is pretty much enough for each and every task that you may need to accomplish with your phone, at this time at least. But judging by how things are moving, 2 gigs will be able to deliver a sufficient experience for at least another year.
Packing a 16 MP camera, the Samsung Galaxy S5 will aim to step up its photography game even further. Of course, the Galaxy S4 was among the finest camera phones around when it came out, and it managed to retain this status for a whole year! We were hoping for an even more exceptional camera performance out of the S5. Well, with a 16MP shooter, the "fastest ever auto focus in a smartphone" and the borrowing of phase focus (faster) from DSLRs, along with a new companion chip for image processing that will allow for extremely low capture times, it sure sounds like Samsung's new flagship can deliver.
Complementing the new hardware are some pretty cool new software features. In addition to the must-have shooting modes and settings, for example, there's a new feature that lets you snap a picture, and then change the focus later on – similarly to what Nokia is doing with its high-end camera phones. Additionally, there's a pretty cool new real-time HDR mode, which gives you a live preview of the image you're about to take and the effect that HDR is going to have on it. What's more, you can even take HDR photos in burst mode, so there you have it – taking great and highly-dynamic shots has never been easier.
As far as video capture goes, the Galaxy S5 adds the ability to shoot 4K video – so we guess that's a must-have feature now with mobile cameras. Sadly, we aren't able to comment on the image and video quality right now, but we'll be sure to do so as soon as possible. Another handy feature that the Galaxy S5 puts on the table is HDR video, and there's also a new 'selective focus' feature that we're interested in testing out. On paper, what it does is snap several images with different focus setting, and then fuse them together to create more artsy stills in which the background is blurred.
So, this is it then. The Samsung Galaxy S5 has finally been announced, and as we said in the beginning, it seems to be successfully building upon the already winning formula of the Galaxy S line. With a bigger and better display, faster and incredibly powerful processor, as well as a substantioally upgraded camera, the Galaxy S5 is set to become the dominant species on the high-end Android smartphone market.
But, there is one but. It seems like we're starting to see Samsung grow a bit tired, and we guess that's what happens when you're in lead for a long time. Make no mistake, the Samsung Galaxy S5 will be an amazing smartphone, but we can see its competitors becoming stronger and stronger by the hour.
Until any of those gets powerful enough in order to challenge Samsung's market excellence, though, it looks like the Galaxy S5 wll continue to be the trend-setter in the industry.