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Samsung Galaxy S5 or Apple iPhone 5S: Which should I buy?

Samsung is the only Android OEM that can stand on its own against the Apple juggernaut, and at MWC this week the Korean company finally took the wraps off its new flagship smartphone. The Galaxy S5 comes with improved hardware and an array of interesting sensors, but Samsung has also cleaned up its software and focused its attention on fewer features. Let’s break it down and see how the Galaxy S5 compares to Apple’s iPhone 5S.

Samsung Galaxy S5 vs iPhone 5S: Design

The Galaxy series of devices are always getting bigger, but the increase in size is less substantial this time. The Galaxy S5 has a 5.1in screen with slim bezels that keep it from being too ungainly – it’s 72.5mm across. The back is made of plastic with a dimple pattern that reminds many of a Band-Aid. It might not be the most elegant look, but it provides some much needed grip.

Apple’s devices have always been slimmer than Samsung’s, and the difference is only becoming more stark as Android handsets continue to scale up. The iPhone 5S has a 4in screen and is only 58.6mm across. It’s much easier to use one-handed, but the trade-off is screen real estate. The iPhone has an aluminium composite frame that feels very solid and keeps the phone from being too hefty.

Another aspect to consider is Samsung’s new water and dust resistant design. Last year there was a separate product for this feature (the S4 Active), but now the Galaxy S5 can be dunked and splashed with no consequences. The removable back panel has a rubber gasket that seals the sensitive components, and there’s a cover on the USB 3.0 port to keep water out. The Galaxy S5 is rated IP67, which should keep it alive for up to 30 minutes in a few feet of water, but Samsung encouraged potential buyers at its announcement not to push it that far. Still, compare that to the iPhone 5S with its warranty-voiding water sensors that can be triggered by the most miniscule amount of moisture.

Both devices include a fingerprint reader under the home button, but Apple has a more futuristic kind of implementation compared to Samsung. Samsung included a familiar swipe reader in its home button, so users have to drag a digit straight down across the button to be recognised.

The iPhone’s Touch ID system can learn and recognise your fingerprint when you lay a finger flat on the button, which is much more convenient when you’re pressing it. Watch the video below to see how clumsy the Samsung implementation can be.

Samsung ups the ante by including a heart rate sensor on the back of the phone. It plugs into the S Health app and it might actually get a lot of use – your finger is only a few centimetres from the reader, after all.

Samsung Galaxy S5 vs iPhone 5S: Cameras

The iPhone 5S packs an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that routinely produces some of the best images available on a smartphone. It’s not just the stellar back-side illuminated sensor that makes that happen, it’s the two-stage flash that keeps objects from looking blown out or too dark when ambient light is low.

Samsung bumped the Galaxy S5 up to a 16-megapixel sensor from the 13-megapixel snapper in its last flagship. One of the issues with a 16-megapixel image sensor is that it can take a long time to acquire the image. Samsung has partially rectified that by using an advanced technique called phase-detect autofocus. This lets the Galaxy S5 focus on its target in 0.3 seconds, which should close the speed gap considerably.

Samsung has also added the option to capture 4K video with the Galaxy S5. At that point you’re just left worrying about the amount of storage space being eaten up on the GS5′s limited internal storage – it doesn’t help that Samsung leaves you with less than 8GB to work with on the 16GB model.

The 2013 Android flagships like the HTC One and Galaxy S4 were vast improvements over past Android devices, but Apple was still the clear winner in overall image quality. This year, Samsung might have the right combination of features to win this matchup. Early impressions suggest that Samsung’s camera is very good indeed, but we need more time with it before declaring an absolute winner.

Samsung Galaxy S5 vs iPhone 5S: Specs and wireless

Samsung’s new baby has a 5.1in 1080p Super AMOLED screen, which works out to 432 pixels per inch. Samsung is also using a new light sensor in the Galaxy S5 that does more than change the brightness – it allows the AMOLED screen to switch colour profiles based on the environment. The iPhone 5S still has a lower resolution despite Samsung sticking with 1080p for another generation. Apple’s 4in 1136 x 640 Retina Display (IPS LCD) offers 326 pixels per inch. So Apple’s top-of-the-line phone has a lesser resolution and lower pixel density.

Internally, the Galaxy S5 packs a punch with a quad-core Snapdragon 801 clocked at 2.5GHz and 2GB of RAM. There isn’t really a direct comparison because the platforms are so different, but the iPhone 5S does just fine with its 64-bit A7 SoC (1.3-GHz dual-core) and 1GB of RAM. Basically, both devices have the hardware they need to be responsive. Apple does offer a 64GB version of the iPhone 5S, while Samsung tops out at 32GB in the Galaxy S5. However, you can stick a microSD card in the GS5 for more breathing room.

The wireless connectivity setup is definitely something to consider when choosing between these phones. The Samsung Galaxy S5 comes with the new (and very fast) 802.11ac MIMO standard built-in. When paired with a compatible router, the GS5 can connect at well over 1Gbps in real world conditions. The iPhone 5S tops out at 802.11n for a few hundred megabits per second. This only matters if you’re moving large files around a network or streaming a lot of content from a centralised media server – both wireless technologies are fine for Internet access.

Samsung Galaxy S5 vs iPhone 5S: Operating System

The Galaxy S5 ships with Android 4.4.2 KitKat under Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. The TouchWiz bit, by all accounts, isn’t as bad as it once was. Samsung has cleaned up its act to a great degree and no longer chokes the system with as many of its unnecessary apps and services. Samsung’s tweaked Android UI is flatter and much nicer to look at overall as well.

Rather than pile on heaps of questionable new gimmicks (don’t worry, there are still a few gimmicks), Samsung is being more judicious. For example, users will see a cool floating “toolbox” item that can be used for quick access to a select group of apps. There is also a clever ultra-power-saving mode that can stretch 10 per cent of battery capacity into 24 hours of standby by disabling background services and setting the screen to black and white.

With iOS 7, Apple closed the UI gap that had developed over the last few years. It no longer looks as dated as it once did, but some of the design choices are a bit contentious – no more than TouchWiz, though. Apple’s platform is generally more responsive and easier to get things done with, but only if you’re willing to do it Apple’s way. There are very few options for customisation with iOS 7, and the level of integration with your life depends on how much Apple gear you own.

The app situation isn’t as unbalanced as it once was – Android and iOS both have great ecosystems. The App Store is a bit richer in pretty apps and advanced games, but Android makes up for that with a ton of customisation and awesome utilities in the Play Store. If all you want to do is play Candy Crush Saga, both platforms have you covered. Sometimes the specs and design don’t matter as much as the software running on it. Anyone who is firmly entrenched in one platform or the other will find it hard to switch.

Samsung Galaxy S5 vs iPhone 5S: Is there a winner?

We can’t compare these handsets on price yet, as Samsung hasn’t announced how much its flagship will cost. However, you can bet it will be pitched pretty much around the same level as the iPhone 5S. Cost isn’t likely to be a factor, in other words.

One thing’s for sure – it’s going to be a tough call this year, but Samsung might have edged out the iPhone 5S with its impressive screen, refined software, and plethora of sensors. However, the iPhone offers a slightly better app ecosystem and a more manageable form factor.

For a power user, there’s probably no better choice among announced upcoming devices than the Galaxy S5. The iPhone 5S is already halfway through its life cycle, though, so Samsung may only have a few months left to gloat.

For more on the freshly unveiled S5, check out our piece in which we answer your Galaxy S5 questions, and our hands-on with the S5. We've also got spec comparisons pitting the S5 against the Sony Xperia Z2, LG G Pro 2 and Google Nexus 5.