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A closer look at the Samsung Galaxy S5: Gimmicky, but still the best smartphone in the world

On paper, it’s hard to fault Samsung’s new Galaxy S5, unveiled in Barcelona last night. It has top notch hardware, a fairly decent version of Android, and simply more features than any other smartphone out there. You can fault the plastic chassis – but do remember that there are also plenty of people out there who prefer the plastic to metal. In practice, I’m happy to report that the Galaxy S5 really is a nice phone – probably the best handset out there come its 11 April release date – but it’s certainly not without its gimmicky faults. But hey, it wouldn’t be a Samsung Galaxy if it didn’t have a few lovable but useless gimmicks, right?

Let’s start with the fingerprint scanner. It was telling that Samsung didn’t lead with the new sensor, instead burying it towards the end of the presentation. As I expected, the fact that you have to swipe your finger over the Galaxy S5’s home button is a real pain in the ass.

Basically, the registration process asks you to swipe your finger straight down over the sensor. It’s easy enough. Now, pull your smartphone out of your pocket and answer me this: What’s the orientation of your thumb when resting on the home button? It’s at right angles, not straight down.

You can’t actually swipe your thumb straight down while holding a smartphone in one hand – it’s physically impossible (unless you’re double jointed perhaps?) You can register your thumbprint in that alternate, sideways-on orientation – but the sensor definitely isn’t designed to be used that way, and it doesn’t reliably read your finger.

So, basically, the Galaxy S5′s fingerprint scanner is useful if you like holding your phone in one hand and poking around with the other – but it’s definitely not a quick-access feature, like the iPhone 5S. (The iPhone 5S sensor’s implementation is far, far slicker).

The heart rate sensor on the back of the Galaxy S5 isn’t much better. The sensor is right beneath the camera, and getting the sensor to work is a bit finicky – so you’ll probably end up smudging the camera with your finger. It didn’t seem very accurate, either – my heart rate fluctuated between 95 and 80, over the course of 15 seconds or so. The Samsung guy standing next to me had a heart rate of just 50, which is possible – but unlikely. It is probably more accurate when you figure out the knack of using it correctly.

In almost all other areas, though, the Galaxy S5 is pretty darn smooth. The new, fairly minimal TouchWiz interface is mostly free of kruft and easy to use. The phone itself feels good in the hand (but yes, it’s plastic; but I don’t have a problem with that). The camera is very good, but we’ll need some proper hands-on time to see how it compares to the iPhone 5S and Lumia 1020 (at first glance, though, it looks promising).

The phone feels very slick; I couldn’t find any signs of interface slowdown. The new “adaptive display” feature that keeps the Super AMOLED display looking sharp and (over) saturated appears to work well. Longer-term features, like the Ultra Power Saving Mode, obviously require more time to investigate fully.

Overall, I was impressed with the Galaxy S5. It’s an iterative improvement upon the Galaxy S4. Samsung is obviously aiming for the S5 to be more of a “just works” type device, rather than the S4’s “look at all the stuff it can (kinda) do!” approach. For the most part, the S5 does just work – and works well – except in the case of the fingerprint scanner, which is mostly useless. I am fairly certain that the S5 will go on to be a massive seller. If you look at the S5 in its entirety, there is no other smartphone that really comes close.

While you’re here, you might want to check out our hands-on with the Galaxy S5, and also our Galaxy S5 versus Google Nexus 5 spec comparison.

For all the latest releases, updates, and some beautiful photos of the latest gadgets, check out our live coverage of all the action from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.