In February, Samsung (SSNLF) introduced the latest edition in a phenomenally successful Samsung Galaxy line of flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S5. It has been on sale in the U.S. since April and in its first month, outperformed last year’s Galaxy S4 launch by selling 11 million units.
Just like last year, the Galaxy S5 is up against tough competition. The HTC One M8 (reviewed here) is winning kudos, Sony (SNE) is making waves with its Xperia Z2 and Z1 Compact, while LG’s new G3 is bigger and offers a more pixel-dense display. Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 5s continues to hold its own against the latest Samsung Galaxy challenger, even as it preps the iPhone 6 for a likely fall launch.
Samsung sent me a Galaxy S5 review unit to use for a few weeks. Is this smartphone good enough to fend off Samsung’s rivals until next year? Here’s what I thought of the latest Samsung Galaxy flagship:
Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Great Hardware, “Meh” Design, Sometimes Annoying Software
There’s no denying the Galaxy S5 is a great piece of hardware. The display is crisp and bright (as you can see from the photo, it even holds its own in bright sunlight). The camera takes great photos. The fingerprint scanner/heart rate sensor worked as advertised. The CPU provides plenty of oomph, and battery life was good.
However, the design of the Galaxy S5 is boring. If you want a smartphone that stands out from the pack, this is not the one for you. Samsung dressed it up a little from last year’s Galaxy S4 by adding a “glam look” texture, but the fact remains that the Galaxy S5 is clad in plastic and looks a little cheap compared to other premium smartphones in the $650 club.
My other primary complaint is the software loaded on Samsung Galaxy smartphones. I’m a fan of elegance in both hardware and user interface. Android KitKat on its own is pretty good, but Samsung puts its Touchwiz UI over top, and that’s where things start to get messy.
Add in feature software like S Health, S Voice, Smart Remote, Galaxy Gifts and Samsung Apps, and the user experience can get really muddled. It often seemed as though I spent more time running updates, agreeing to terms and conditions and entering account information than I did actually using the features.
If you’re excited about the functionality of features like S Health and don’t mind Touchwiz, then this won’t be an issue. However, I found it made for a somewhat messy interface that often got in the way of using the Galaxy S5.
Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Galaxy Vs. the iPhone 5s
While there are other Android contenders, the Galaxy S5 is primarily competing against one smartphone: the iPhone. These two devices represent the pinnacle of the smartphone market.
So which one comes out on top?
Samsung adopted several features that made headlines for the iPhone 5s when it was released, notably the fingerprint sensor and a gold case option. The Galaxy S5 actually one-ups Apple’s Touch ID sensor with built-in heart rate monitor capability (something that Apple requires third-party apps for), although I found its placement on the back of the device was less convenient than the Touch ID’s front-and-center location.
Samsung’s take on the gold case? Looks tacky to me … I’m not a fan of Apple’s, either (although my wife waited two months to get her hands on one), but the iPhone 5s is a clear winner in the overall design department with an industrial looking metal case that’s thinner and more polished.
The Galaxy S5 has one key advantage over the iPhone 5s: Its display is bigger and sharper than the iPhone’s Retina display (5.1-inches vs. 4-inches and 432 ppi vs. 326 ppi). That alone makes using the Galaxy S5 much easier for someone like myself who finds the iPhone is just too small. Of course, it makes viewing media and reading text a better experience on the Galaxy S5 too.
Other pluses for the Galaxy S5? It has a user-replaceable battery, shoots 4K video, offers optional wireless recharging, lets you inexpensively boost storage using microSD cards and offers water and dust resistance.
If you’re in the Android camp, then the iPhone 5s isn’t even in the running. But the iPhone’s design and the simplicity of iOS 7 compared to the Galaxy S5’s sometimes overwhelming user interface wins the iPhone 5s a lot of points if you’re on the fence.
Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Specs
- 5.1-inch Super AMOLED Full HD display (432 ppi)
- Quad core Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 801 processor @ 2.5GHz with 2GB RAM
- 16 GB internal memory (expandable to 128 GB using microSD cards)
- 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC, microUSB, IR Blaster remote
- 16MP primary camera with 4K video, LED flash
- Fingerprint sensor and heart rate sensor
- Removable 2800mAh battery rated up to 29 hours talk time
- IP67 dust and water resistance
- Runs Android 4.2.2 (KitKat)
- Available in Charcoal Black, Copper Gold, Electric Blue and Shimmery White (Galaxy S5 review unit was black)
- Priced at $659, or $199 on contract at most carriers
Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Conclusion
One of the most polarizing issues with the Samsung Galaxy S5, and with every Samsung Galaxy phone before it) is the software loaded on the device.
Android KitKat is a very good mobile operating system, but everything else Samsung loads on the Galaxy S5, starting with its Touchwiz user interface, tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. Count me in the latter camp.
In his Galaxy S5 review, Wired’s Matt Honan says the latest Samsung Galaxy has “legitimately great hardware,” but concludes that it’s “torpedoed by a confusing mess of extraneous software.”
Android Central’s Derek Kessler thinks a Google (GOOG) Play edition of the Galaxy S5 is already in the process of certification. If you’re one of those who think Touchwiz is the key element that keeps the Galaxy S5 from being the smartphone to get, then a Google Play edition running pure KitKat should make your day — so keep an eye out for it.
If you still can’t get past the plastic shell but want to stay in the Android camp, then you should be looking at the HTC One M8.
For everyone else, Apple’s iPhone 5s remains the flagship smartphone to beat.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.