It’s one of the most highly anticipated events in the technology calendar: the launch of a new flagship Samsung Galaxy smartphone. Countless billions around the world wait with baited breath to find out whether or not it can top last year’s mega seller. And we just happen to have one of the very first units to arrive in South Africa to test.
The Galaxy S5 is of course the successor to two of the fastest and best-selling Android smartphones ever made – the Galaxy S III and S4. There have been more than 200 million Galaxy S series phones sold to date, so there’s a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the Galaxy S5 to succeed.
So, how does it fare?
While many have been clamouring for a radical overhaul of the Galaxy S4’s design, the Galaxy S5 is less of a drastic departure and more of an evolution of what has come before it.
Apart from being larger with squarer edges, the front of the Galaxy S5 is nigh on indistinguishable from that of the previous two generations of flagship smartphone from the South Korean company.
The ‘home’ button has become slightly smaller, with the new fingerprint sensor hidden just beneath it, while the capacitive ‘back’ button retains its place on the right. The only major change in layout is the replacement of the capacitive ‘menu’ button on the left of the home button with a multi-tasking button.
It’s on the back of the Galaxy S5 where the most change has been made. Gone is the shiny plastic back cover of Galaxy phones past, replaced with a dimpled, soft-touch plastic cover similar to the kind used on last year’s Galaxy Note 3.
Underneath the new 16 megapixel ISOCELL camera sensor is a small recess containing the camera flash, as well as a red LED and a small camera that make up the highly anticipated heart rate monitor on the new Galaxy S5.
The Galaxy S5 is now also IP67 rated which means that it is both dustproof and water resistant for depths of up to one meter for up to 30 minutes at a time which should sound like a blessing to anyone who has ever dropped a smartphone into the bath.
Being a major flagship smartphone the Galaxy S5 is packed full of the latest technology available to smartphone manufacturers. The Galaxy S5, like the S4 before it comes with a choice of two models, and LTE version and a 3G version which is sold by networks without an LTE service.
The LTE version of the Galaxy S5 is powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 801 quad core processor running at 2.5 GHz while our review unit is the 3G version of the Galaxy S5 running an eight core Samsung-made Exynos Octa processor.
The new version of the eight core processor from Samsung has four cores running at 2.1 GHz and another four lower powered cores running at 1.5 GHz but most importantly it has heterogeneous multi-processing capabilities and global task scheduling capabilities. In other words it can use any combination of its cores in the most power efficient way.
Along with the choice in processors cores a choice in storage for South Africans, with the LTE version coming with 16GB of storage and the 3G version garnering 32GB of storage both of which can be expanded by up to 128GB using microSD cards.
Camera wise the Galaxy S5 comes with a new 16 megapixel unit from Samsung using its new ISOCELL sensor technology which increases the light sensitivity of the each individual pixel on the sensor.
The rest of the hardware is set in stone with 2GB of RAM, a new 5.1 inch 1080p, Super AMOLED HD display and a larger 2 800mAh battery which, along with being larger than its predecessor, also charges incredibly quickly.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 runs on the latest version of Google’s Android operating system numbered as 4.4.2. It’s swathed in the latest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface which, while still familiar to users of any of Samsung’s other phones, the new menu layout with its rounded icons will feel refreshingly different all the same.
The new version of the home screen has the, Flipboard-like, curated news feature called ‘My Magazine’ that first showed up in last year’s Note 3. It sits as the left most home-screen but can be deactivated from the home screen management menu which is activated with a pinching gesture.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is fitted with a new 5.1 inch full HD, 1080p, Super AMOLED HD display made by Samsung itself. As with all AMOLED displays the greens and oranges produces by the panel are striking, and at times overwhelming however the effects can be muted by setting the display to cinema mode.
AMOLED panels are famed for the high contrast ratio and brightness that they can produce and the display in the Galaxy S5 is no different. In bright sunlight the display is able to crank its brightness up high enough to become legible even in bright sunlight. Reflections and glare are obviously still a problem but less so because of the advantages that the Galaxy S5’s AMOLED panel provides.
When the Galaxy S5 was announced at Mobile World Congress there was a large portion of the evening dedicated to the new 16 megapixel camera in the phone. Samsung has opted to replace the Sony sourced camera unit from the Galaxy S4 with its own ISOCELL camera module in the Galaxy S5. ISOCELL technology isolates each pixel in the camera sensor from each other with small walls that result in more light being captured by each pixel.
In the real world though the camera in the Galaxy S5 is a drastic improvement over the Galaxy S4’s. The camera interface has been trimmed down drastically from the messy S4 interface. From the twelve modes available in the S4, there are just six shooting modes available in the Galaxy S5 with additional modes needing to be downloaded.
High dynamic range (HDR) pictures, which used to require you to hold the phone still while it captured two separate photos, are now almost instantaneous thanks in large part to the new image processing capabilities of the Exynos processor.
Picture quality is fantastic in well-lit outdoor photography as well as in lower light conditions indoors and at night. It doesn’t quite match our favourites in the imaging category being the Sony Xperia Z1 for outdoor, bright light snaps and the iPhone 5s in low light situations, but at the same time you won’t be disappointed with the pictures that the Galaxy S5 produces.
Samsung’s claims of 0.3 seconds to focus with its combination of contrast and phase detect autofocus is more marketing talk than anything else, which is not to say that the S5 doesn’t lock onto its subjects quickly, just not as instantaneously as we were led to believe.
Fingerprint reader and heart-rate sensor
It’s unusual for us to add in a new section into our reviews for specific features of a smartphone, but the fingerprint reader and heart-rate sensor in the Galaxy S5 are two of the most-talked-about features in the phone.
The fingerprint scanner is similar in most ways to the ones that people are most familiar with in notebook and tablet computers. It requires you to move your finger in a vertical direction over the scanning area, which is located on the home button, for it to read your print. It differs drastically from Apple’s implementation of the fingerprint reader in the iPhone 5s which essentially took a picture of your fingerprint while it was held still over the sensor in the home button.
Up to three fingerprints can stored and used by the Galaxy S5 with a password also being entered to get around the lock screen if needed.
The truth is that while the fingerprint scanner in the Galaxy S5 does work, it is infuriating at the best of times and unusable for the rest. One handed use is almost out of the question considering the low position of the home button in the frame of the Galaxy S5 with most attempts resulting in us dropping the phone. The best solution we’ve come up with is to scan in your fingerprints one-handed when you add them which seems to work most of the time.
The heart-rate monitor on the other hand works superbly. Our heart rate test using a chest-strap style heart-rate monitor were near identical to those garnered from the S5’s scanner. Samsung stores all of the information in its S Health app which has evolved to become a competitor to the like of Fitbit and Nike’s apps with exercise and food logging built in alongside the pedometer and heart rate monitoring stats.
The Galaxy S5’s 2 800mAh battery may only be a 200mAh bump up from the S4, but the phone on a whole represents a major upgrade in battery life from its predecessor. It’s a combination of the new Exynos 5422 processor with the ability to use any of its eight cores in the most power efficient combination as well the ability to use memory to refresh static content on the display instead of having the graphics cores redraw the image over and over, similar to how the LG G2 does it.
The good news is that when the Galaxy S5’s battery does run flat it charges from 0% to full capacity in around two hours flat, faster still if the phone is left off while it charges. It’s a feature we lauded the LG G2 for last year and one we love again in the Galaxy S5.
Samsung’s Ultra Power Saving (UPS) mode is a new addition that may only ever be used a few times in each Galaxy S5’s life, but it’s definitely one that could save your bacon in a pinch. Samsung claims that just 10% of battery life can give you up to 24 hours of standby time in UPS mode which could make the difference when you need to keep your phone running late in the day, with no hope of charging.
It manages this by shutting off all wireless network connections, although Bluetooth and WiFi can be re-enabled and your mobile data is only used when the display is on. The processor is slowed down, the display brightness is drastically reduced and turns from full colour to greyscale only. It allows for a limited selection of apps to be used (phone, messages, Internet, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, ChatOn, Calculator, Clock, Memo and Voice recorder for now).
While the design and the build of the Galaxy S5 may not have changed much over the last three years the Galaxy S5 represents a big upgrade from its predecessor in the most important areas.
The hardware is without a doubt that of a flagship smartphone in 2014 and that puts the Galaxy S5 at the front of the queue for most consumers but it’s the tangible improvements to the Samsung interface and the brilliant battery saving abilities that make the S5 a worthy upgrade.
Add to that the bevy of additional extras that Samsung throw in with the Galaxy S5, the premium warranty, 1GB of WiFi a month at AlwaysOn hotspots, 50GB of Dropbox storage for two years and more, and the S5 starts to become even more enticing a proposition.
Would we love an aluminium-clad, vanilla Android running Galaxy S5, of course we would, but does that stop it us from wanting to ditch our 2013 smartphones for the S5, not in the slightest. If you’re a fan of Samsung’s Galaxy S range of phones, the S5 will not disappoint you.
Price: R10 200
Display: 5.1 inch, 1080 1920 resolution Super AMOLED HD display (432 ppi)
Operating System: Android 4.4.2 KitKat
Processor: Samsung Exynos Octa 8 core processor (4 X 2.1GHz & 4X 1.5GHz) OR Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz quad core processor (LTE model)
Memory: 2GB RAM
Storage: 16GB (LTE model)/32GB (3G model) expandable by up to 128GB with microSD cards
Battery: 2800mAh user replaceable
Camera: 16 megapixel ISOCELL camera
Networking: Dual band 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and LTE (in the Snapdragon powered model)
Other: Fingerprint scanner, heart-rate monitor, IP67 water and dust resistant