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Few smartphones are as aggressively marketed as Samsung’s Galaxy S5. The S5 can no longer be considered brand-new — but it is Samsung’s flagship, at least for the next few months. With a gorgeous screen, a capable camera, a waterproof build, and a user-replaceable battery, the Galaxy S5 has a lot to offer… at least on paper. Let’s find out how good it really is.

What Makes This Review Different

There are about a million Galaxy S5 reviews out there. Why should you read this one? Two keys points make our review different:

  • We bought our own device. Unlike many tech blogs, we don’t use a review unit Samsung gave us. We went out to the store and bought one, just like you would. This means everything you read here is truly impartial – we owe Samsung nothing.
  • We used it for more than a month. Some sites rush to be the first to publish a review on a new device. That’s not how we do things. I used the Galaxy S5 as my main (and only) Android phone for nearly two months, taking notes throughout the entire time. This review is based on hundreds of hours of actual testing and use.

What You get: Flagship Specs

The Galaxy S5, which can be had for $587, ticks all of the boxes for a modern Android flagship phone. It’s based off a Snapdragon 801 chipset which uses 2GB of RAM, as well as an Adreno 330 GPU for snappy graphics in demanding games. It comes with a 2800 mAh battery — not very impressive by today’s standards, except that it’s user replaceable (quite a unique feature, unfortunately).

It has a 16-megapixel camera, and a 5.1-inch Super-AMOLED display that features 1080p resolution (again, not the highest amongst current flagship phones). It weighs 145 grams, or 5.11oz.

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Finally, in the “notable extra features” department, I should note that it has a USB 3.0 connection, as well as a built-in fingerprint scanner and a pulse sensor — two features we’ll speak more of, later.

The Competition

Obviously, the Galaxy S5 doesn’t live in a vacuum (despite what Samsung may wish). There are at least three other flagship phones out there with specs that match, and sometimes surpass, the Galaxy S5. Let’s take a quick look at each.

LG G3

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LG’s $650 G3 is based on the same chipset and GPU as the Galaxy S5 (Snapdragon 801, Adreno 330) — yet outdoes it in several other respects. For one thing, the display: Its 5.5-inch HD-IPS panel boasts a resolution of 1440×2560, which is just crazy for a smartphone. Whether or not you’ll actually perceive the difference in resolution at these obscene ranges is another matter.

The G3 has a 3000mAh which, just like the S5’s, is removable. It’s not waterproof, though — or at least not officially (dunk it at your own risk). Its camera is equipped with a 13-megapixel sensor (to the S5’s 16), but again, whether or not you’ll perceive the difference is another matter.

HTC One M8

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Then we’ve got the gorgeous HTC One M8, retailing for $637. Same chipset, same GPU, same amount of RAM. The battery on this one is even smaller than on the S5, at 2600 mAh, and it isn’t user-replaceable. The display is 5 inches, 1080×1920.

The biggest things that sets the HTC One M8 apart from the Galaxy S5 is, of course, industrial design. The M8’s gorgeous metal body feels premium in ways the Galaxy S5 simply doesn’t. Another key difference is the camera — HTC famously opted for a lower megapixel count. So the rear camera is just 4MP — but these are “UltraPixels,” as HTC calls them, promising better images through larger individual pixel size.

Sony Xperia Z2

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Last but certainly not least comes Sony’s Xperia Z2, retailing for $616. Same chipset and GPU, only the Z2 comes with 3GB of RAM. It has a non user-replaceable 3200 mAh battery, and just like the Galaxy S5, it’s waterproof. It comes with a 20.7MP camera, and a 5.2-inch 1080p panel.

In terms of look and feel, once again, the Z2 feels decidedly premium. This is subjective, but I would say it’s a classier-looking device than the Galaxy S5, if not as practical (not being able to replace the battery is a major drawback).

Look and Feel: Hardware Design

The Galaxy S5’s hardware design isn’t radically different or fancy, but it works. You’ve no doubt seen the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy S4 Samsung Galaxy S4 Review and Giveaway Samsung Galaxy S4 Review and Giveaway Samsung's current flagship device, the Galaxy S4 marries no-compromises hardware with Google's mobile operating system, slathered with a thick layer of Samsung's own software overlays and customizations. That doesn't mean the outcome is perfect. How... Read More – so you will instantly recognize the S5. To me, that’s not a bad thing. The front of the phone is dominated by the beautiful, bright, 5.1-inch Super-AMOLED screen. As it’s done before, Samsung eschews on-screen buttons for a trio of dedicated hardware buttons. You’ve got your tactile home button at the bottom-center of the device (with a built-in fingerprint reader, which we’ll get to in a moment). To its right is the Back button, while on the left you’ll find the Recents button. This is a change for Samsung: Previous devices had the Menu button in that spot. A long-press of the Recents button still works as a Menu button.

Samsung seems confident in its design: The capacitive buttons have LEDs, but these are off by default, even when you’re using the phone. Tapping one of the capacitive buttons switches on the LEDs for a brief moment, then flicks them back off. Samsung knows you know they’re there.

Now let’s discuss the back of the device: It’s made of thin plastic. Samsung touts the “dimpled” look (i.e. it has lots of little dimples) — but honestly, it looks and feels a bit like a piece of Styrofoam, at least on the white model. But there are major benefits to this design: Not only is the battery removable, but there’s an SD card slot, and the phone is still waterproof — the best of all worlds, so to speak. The only concession Samsung’s had to make when waterproofing the device is that the USB 3.0 jack at the bottom of the phone is now covered with a plastic flap, just like the one on the Sony Xperia Z1.

The home button features an integrated fingerprint sensor, just like another device whose name I can’t remember at the moment, iSomething. Swipe your finger down the fingerprint sensor, and the Galaxy S5 will instantly unlo… Wait, no, was your finger wet? Wipe the sensor and the finger and try again. Nope, swipe the whole finger, not just the tip. Oh, you did? Well, make sure you swipe right down the center of the sensor. And there, the Galaxy S5 will instantly unlock, just like magic.

This may sound comical, but that’s really what it feels like. And in daily use, it really isn’t all that amusing.

Living With The S5: Interface and User Experience

Right out of the box, the Galaxy S5 is a fairly annoying phone to use. The screen goes “bloop” every time you touch something, making this expensive, supposedly premium device feel like a toy. The bundled keyboard has aggressive autocorrection which interfered with my typing more than it helped, and the punctuation marks were not terribly easy to use, either. It’s a good thing Android lets you swap out the keyboard for something better.

Samsung’s launcher is, well, pure Samsung. There’s an All Apps button on the bottom-right corner (not in the middle per the Android convention), and no, you can’t move it. There’s no way to quickly search the apps in your drawer, and you can’t uninstall apps directly from the homescreen. You need to open the app drawer, scroll all the way to the app of your choice, and remove it like that.

There is, however, a cool way to place widgets — with a nice zoomed out overview of your screens. Notification badges are also included, showing unread message counts even for third-party apps like WhatsApp. These work even if you put those app icons within folders — one of the launcher’s bright usability points.

Pull down Android’s top bar, and you’ll find the notification shade. And wow, Samsung pulled no punches here. It’s overwhelmingly cluttered, with two large buttons some ROM versions simply will not let you remove. Both buttons are utterly useless, one leading to S Find (Samsung’s slow search interface) and the other to Quick Connect, another feature I haven’t used even once. These two massive and utterly useless buttons take up a respectable chunk of space on the panel.

Moving on, let’s discuss the settings. There are so many of these, Samsung decided to go ahead and implement three different layouts for the settings screen so you can find the one which is the least confusing for you. Fortunately, there is a rather good quick-search feature which allows you to start typing the name of the setting you’re after.

Even so, finding stuff isn’t always easy. For example, how do you change the temperature units shown on the lockscreen from Fahrenheit to Celsius? You’d never guess. You need to add the Weather widget to one of your homescreens, configure it, then remove it. Yup. In general, I found myself Googling for answers quite a bit as I was trying to customize the Galaxy S5, despite the enormous number of settings it offers.

On the plus side, many features that often require third-party apps are there natively: You get something that’s a bit like Gravity Screen (wave your hand over the screen to wake the phone). There’s a built-in call blocker, too. But there’s an inescapable feeling that Samsung just had to cram the phone full of features, even if they don’t all work that well. Smart Scrolling, a nifty feature that scrolls as you tilt the phone, only works on some apps — and there’s no clear explanation as to which apps these are.

Unique And Interesting Features

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The Galaxy S5 tries to be very connected to your body. Let us count the ways: A fingerprint sensor, a pulse reader, and a built-in pedometer with the S Health app. Out of these three, the pedometer is actually the best — it’s both accurate and helpful, and if you’re interested in monitoring your daily step count, it’s pretty great. There’s a nice pedometer widget for your homescreen, and you can glance at your step counter even from the lockscreen.

The pulse sensor and the fingerprint reader are both overly ambitious. We’ve covered the fingerprint reader already, and the pulse sensor only works when you’re completely still. Yup, you can’t use it to monitor any sort of activity — you have to press your finger against the sensor and hold it there for a good while, and then you get a reading.

The Galaxy S5 also comes with a number of interesting emergency features. It has a low-power Emergency Mode which shuts down many of the phone’s functions and switches to a simple, basic interface with a flashlight, an alarm, and several other essentials. It also lets you set up a list of emergency contacts which you can then dial even if the phone is locked.

Performance

The Galaxy S5 scores around 32,000 in Antutu — a respectable score, though not one you should take overly seriously. Some companies have been known to cheat at benchmarks by detecting the benchmarking app and tweaking the phone’s performance just for the duration of the benchmark.

What truly counts is how the phone feels — and this is one snappy device. In around two months of heavy use, I’ve seen very little lag. The only lag noticeable was in opening the camera app: Sometimes as you launch the camera, the screen blacks out for a few seconds, and only then shows the picture. This only happens occasionally and isn’t a major issues. When it comes to games, the phone performs as you’d expect it to — in other words, blazing fast.

Another annoying performance issue I’ve come across happens at the other end of the spectrum — while the phone is doing nothing but charging. Several times I’ve plugged the phone in to charge overnight, waking up to realize my alarm clock hadn’t gone off, and the phone somehow overheated during the night and shut itself down. This happened when using Samsung’s original battery, cable, and charger — but obviously, did not happen every night.

Camera

The last feature I’d like to discuss is the camera. There’s no dedicated camera button, but you can very quickly launch the camera from the lockscreen. It switches on with very little lag. It’s clever, too: If you launch the camera from the lockscreen and snap several photos, you can then browse through those photos — but not through any other photos in the device’s gallery (until you unlock it, that is).

The camera shoots excellent panoramas, and is exceedingly fast doing so, too. There are relatively few seams, and it’s fun to use. Dim the lights, however, and it’s a different story: Photos taken in low light are incredibly noisy.

All in all, in daylight, the Galaxy S5’s camera is reasonably good. It focuses quite well, and is very snappy and responsive.

Bottom Line

If I had to describe the Galaxy S5 in a word, I’d pick “busy.” It tries to do absolutely everything, and excels at few tasks. It is fast, responsive, and waterproof — but so are its competitors. Given that competition, I would be hard-pressed to recommend the Galaxy S5. For the same amount of money or slightly less, you can get a phone which is just as fast and responsive, and doesn’t burden you with clunky software and half-baked sensors.

Our verdict of the Samsung Galaxy S5:
MakeUseOf recommends: Do not buy.
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The Winner

Congratulations, Art Woo! You would have received an email from jackson@makeuseof.com. Please respond before September 7 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.

Send your products to be reviewed. Contact Jackson Chung for further details.

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