A great smartphone in every way, the Samsung Galaxy S5 edges in front of the HTC One (M8) as the best smartphone around.
We wondered where Samsung could possibly go with the Samsung Galaxy S5. With the screen size of the S4 hitting the limit of practical pocketability, and so much technology already squeezed in, there surely wasn’t much room for expansion.
Cast a cursory glance over the S5’s headline specifications and you might come to the same conclusion. Aside from the usual processor upgrade, from the quad-core 1.9 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 to the top-of-the-range quad-core Snapdragon 801, there’s no whizz-bang upgrade to match the quirky duo-camera of its major rival, the HTC One (M8), nor a radical rethink of design.
Although the plastic panel at the rear has changed from glossy to soft-touch – there are a few new colours to choose from -and the screen has increased in size by 0.1 in, the core physical elements of the S5 are much like those of the S4.
Below the screen is a physical home button flanked by two capacitive buttons, one for going back a step and another for accessing the recent apps list.
The display remains ringed with a ridged, chrome-effect band, with the power and volume buttons in the same positions on the right and left edges. The rear panel is still removable, giving access to SIM and microSD slots beneath, plus a user-replaceable battery.
If you look closely at the specification, you’ll notice that the new phone is 15g heavier and a touch taller and wider. For a more radical comparison, you need to sit the S5 next to the HTC One (M8); the S5 is lighten shorten slighdy wider and far less attractive.
Tricks and tweaks
However Samsung has made a number of mostly small changes that add up to a major upgrade overall. Flip off the rear cover and examine the underside of the thin plastic back and you’ll see evidence of the S5’s water- and dust-resistant protection: a thin rubber strip now seals in the sensitive components.
The S5 is EP67-rated, which means the phone is protected against dust ingress and can be submerged in up to a metre of water for 30 minutes. Anyone who has dropped their phone in the sink, bath or toilet, or soaked their phone in a rainstorm, will agree this is a feature worth having.
The familiar home button hides another new feature: a fingerprint reader for unlocking the phone, similar to that found on the Apple iPhone 5s. However we’re not sure about this: only three fingerprints can be registered, and you’re required to swipe your finger across the button for it to work, which is less convenient than Apple’s touch-recognition approach. As a result, we found it tricky to unlock the unit with one hand, since it doesn’t work well when your thumb is angled across the button.
Then there’s the heart-rate monitor positioned just below the camera on the rear of the
phone. This is more sensibly positioned: with the phone cradled in either hand, the sensor falls nicely under the ball of your index finger. However heart-rate sensors work best when they’re constantly monitoring your pulse during periods of exercise or day-to-day activities. With the S5, you have to make a conscious decision to measure your pulse, which makes it less useful.
It’s the improvements to the phone’s camera that prove the most compelling. Samsung has bumped up the resolution to 16 megapixels, added DSLR-style phase-detect autofocus and the ability to shoot video at up to a 4K resolution and is now using a l/2.6in sensor: The latter isn’t only larger than the l/3in offering of the HTC One (M8), but also boasts Samsung’s ISOCELL technology aimed at reducing image noise.
The result of these changes is top performance and superlative image quality all round. True to Samsung’s claims, the autofocus system focuses from near to far subjects in around 0.3 seconds -but that isn’t the full story. It can take as long as a second to analyse the scene before this focusing takes place.
Still, when it locks on, we found focus to be extremely accurate. The benefits of the new autofocus system are even more noticeable when it comes to video, where focus transitions are quick and sure-footed.
In terms of general quality, we found low-light shots to be cleaner than those of any other smartphone camera we’ve tested – apart from the superb Nokia Lumia 1020
, that is. Detail levels in good light are spectacular, and the HDR setting works incredibly effectively to balance out images shot in extremes of light and shade, in both stills and (remarkably) video.
Elsewhere, the changes are less dramatic, but worth having nonetheless. For example, the Super AMOLED display boasts the same pixel count and an increase in size of a mere O.lin over the S4, but performance is dramatically improved.
Measured with our colorimeter maximum brightness is up from the S4’s 221cd/m2 to a much more acceptable 364cd/m2. It still can’t compete with the best IPS screens – such as those of the Apple iPhone 5s and the HTC One (M8), which are easier to read in bright sunlight – but its perfect black levels deliver picture quality of unrivalled depth.
As always with Samsung’s AMOLED displays, colours are a little oversaturated and the colour temperature is on the cool side, but these are small gripes. Indeed, taken as a whole, the display is as good as you’ll find on any smartphone.
Performance and battery life
The same can be said for performance, which, as you’d expect from a flagship Samsung handset, is beyond reproach. The S5 sports a quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with an Adreno 330
GPU, 2GB of RAM and 16 or 32GB of storage. It’s similar to the HTC One (M8)’s offering, but it’s clocked 0.3GHz faster.
Benchmark scores were a match for the fastest phones we’ve tested. Geekbench 3 single- and multicore test results of 957 and 2,960 are very close to the HTC One (M8)’s scores of 984 and 2,849. The same goes for the results of the GFXBench T-Rex HD gaming test, which returned a frame rate of 28fps; the HTC One (M8) gained a negligible advantage of lfps.
In practice, all this means the S5 is quick enough to deal with anything you can throw at it: hefty web pages load in a trice; panning and zooming around them is never less than buttery smooth; and the latest 3D mobile games run as smoothly as you need them to, with no choppiness or juddering.
Battery life, as we found with the HTC One (M8), was excellent. We regularly found that even while testing out the camera, shooting videos, downloading apps and updates over Wi-Fi and light web browsing over 3G, the S5 comfortably lasted a day, with plenty of capacity left oven
In testing, too, it delivered impressive figures: it used 5.2% per hour of its battery capacity while playing back a 720p video file on the Samsung video player app, and 3.4% of its capacity while streaming a 12 8 Kbits/sec audio file over 3G from our SoundCloud account. These figures are slightly better than the HTC One (M8)’s, but not by a huge margin.
It’s possible to stretch battery life further by switching the phone into its Ultra Power Saving mode. Like the HTC One (M8)’s Extreme Power Saving mode, this shuts off mobile data, restricts you to a select number of apps, and switches the screen to a more power-efficient greyscale colour scheme. However unlike the HTC, the list of apps you can use is customisable.
Alas, we can’t report an accurate figure for the gaming section of GFXBench, since the S5 drops the frame rate in this test, which gives an artificially positive total runtime of 4hrs 24mins, 86% longer than the HTC One (M8). We’d expect the S5 to be a littie better than the (M8) due to its larger 2,800mAh battery, but not by this much.
Not with standing this, we’d expect – given the performance results and similar internal hardware – that real-world gaming would drain the battery at a similar rate to the HTC One (M8) – which is to say fast, but not as fast as the Apple iPhone 5s.
The software (Android 4.4 KitKat with Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay) is the one area where the S5’s star dims a little, but there are still interesting and worthy changes.
In the “interesting” category are My Magazine and Download Booster; Like HTC’s BlinkFeed,
the former gives a picture-heavy feed of news items and social network, accessible via a swipe from the left of the main homescreen. However, we found we ignored it most of the time. The latter tool allows you to gang together the phone’s Wi-Fi and 4G connections to deliver ultra-fast speeds for downloads greater than 30MB in size.
In our tests using the ADSL connection and a Three 4G SIM, Download Booster worked perfecdy. How much it will boost your download speed will depend on the speed of each link; we saw a doubling of throughput on average. It works, but whether it’s a practical feature is a matter for debate, especially since most 4G users will be on a capped contract and will want to save data as much as possible.
In the “worthy” category are improvements to the preinstalled S Health app, which now includes the ability to measure your heart rate using the sensor on the S5 (or any of the accompanying smartwatches – the Gear 2, the Gear 2 Neo or the Gear Fit), plus a clean-up of TouchWiz’s overly complicated settings menu. Previously a mess of tabs and long, scrolling menus, it now consists of one long, vertically scrolling menu divided into sections, which is easier to navigate. The addition of a search field at the top of the settings
Quad-rare 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon B01 CPU Adreno 330 GPU 2GB RAM 1&/32GB storage 5.1 in 1,080×1,920 display 46 Bluetooth 4 NFC heort-rate monitor linnerprini reader dud-bend 802.11acWj-R 16MP/2MP rear/front cameras 4K video 2,800mAh barttery Anfarid4.4 lyrRTBwtrranty 73×8.1 x 142mm (WDH) 145g
menu is a godsend, too. Samsung still feels it necessary to do things its own way, though, with circular icons arranged in a grid under each heading.
Aside from a couple of tiny grumbles, then, there’s an awful lot to like about the Samsung Galaxy S5. Although it doesn’t look it at first glance, it’s a much bigger upgrade than the S4 was last year, and that makes it the best smartphone on the market right now. It may not have the looks of the HTC One (M8), but it’s tougher; it has a far better camera, it boasts more features, and it offers greater flexibility with a user-replaceable battery.
However; in the final analysis, we’d still recommend the Nexus 5 over the S5 as our A-List choice, since Google’s 5 in smartphone represents the optimum combination of price and all-round ability. Although it’s no match for the S5, it’s still an excellent phone, and, most importantly, it hugely undercuts the S5 on price.