It's only April, and already we have the arrival of what will be the most anticipated handset of the year for many people. If previous experience is anything to go by and Samsung has done a good job, the Galaxy S5 ought to be at, or hover near the top of, every "best phone" list throughout 2014.
Samsung's reputation for throwing everything it has got at its flagship handset continues, and for some people the sheer range of what's on offer here will be daunting. I'd need much more than the space I have in this review to cover everything about the Galaxy S5. That's not unusual of course, but in the case of Samsung there are so many good features that I feel it is necessary to apologise beforehand, because I will inevitably leave something out that some of you would have wanted covered.
If you want your top tier handset to look and feel really well made, then this might not be the phone for you. The HTC One M8 wins the prize for the best looking, most solid handset so far this year, I'd say. Samsung just can't stop itself using plastic. The faux silver banding around the edges looks cheap and nasty, and feels like plastic the moment you touch it. There is a saving grace in the fact that the leather look and vile fake edge stitching Samsung liked for a while, and used on the back of the Samsung Galaxy NotePRO 12.2, is gone. Instead there's a dimpled finish to the back that's soft-touch and distinctive. It is not, though, the kind of finish that stands up well against the metal of the M8 – but at least the plastic casing helps keep this handset relatively light.
The Galaxy S5 is water resistant. The microUSB slot is protected by a covered flap and there's a rubber seal inside the backplate that surrounds both the battery and the stacked microSIM and microSD card slots. To be honest, it all looks a bit minimal to me. I wouldn't want to drop the Galaxy S5 in the bath.
On the front of the phone the tell-tale Samsung home button sits proudly as per normal, and the screen surround has a very faint dot pattern which was surprisingly nice on my white version. Black, blue and gold are also colour options.
You'd never know that there's a fingerprint scanner built into the physical home button, but there is. You have to swipe down into the button from the screen to register fingers – up to three of them. It worked well for me when I was slow and patient, but it is not very practical for getting into the handset while working one-handed standing on a bus. Three failures pop you out to a password but in the long term I think I'd find failing three times too much of a hassle.
With a 5.1in screen, you have to expect a fairly large phone, but at 8.1mm thick, 142mm tall and 72.5mm wide it is a fairly comfy hold. The vertical screen bezel is noticeable and I'd have liked it to be a bit narrower. The power button is on the right edge where it is easy to reach.
Among the many tweaks is a one-handed operation feature. Once you've turned this on, you can just slide a finger in and out of a long edge to reduce the whole screen in size. It looks a bit odd, but unlike other one-handed systems it works everywhere, right across every app and feature because all you are doing is reducing the standard screen size.
The screen itself offers what is at present the generally agreed top-end specification of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Its Super AMOLED technology gives it sharp, vibrant colours, and the tweaker app I've come to like on Samsung handsets, which lets you change the display colour depth and hue, is here. Viewing angles are great, which is always good to see. Samsung has put its Android softkeys below the screen, so the full display area is always in use.
S Health has been around for a while, but this is the first handset to include a heart rate sensor. You need to rest a finger on the panel just under the camera lens on the back of the handset for a few seconds to get a reading. You could use it to record how your heart rate falls over time as you get fitter, but it is not for use while you are being active.
S Health also includes a pedometer and food log, and you can set goals, listen to music while you work out, and graph performance. There's nothing here that you can't get from a myriad of third party apps, and features are very limited, but Samsung is building an ecosystem around health with devices like the Gear Fit as part of the mix.
This is a 4G handset, and Samsung has integrated what it calls Download Booster to use both Wi-Fi and LTE together to make downloads faster than ever. To help that along there are two Wi-Fi antennae built in.
Unlike HTC, Samsung has not worked very hard on sound quality. I found the speaker here disappointing – there's plenty of volume, but bass is light.
The specifications are, as you would expect, top of the range. There isn't a lot of difference separating the Galaxy S5, HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2 in terms of core specs. With the S5 we have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of built in storage with 11.24GB free.
The handset supports USB 3.0, and USB On The Go so you can use a USB device to add storage as well as microSD. There's also infrared, MHL, NFC, Wi-Fi Direct (but not DLNA). The Wi-Fi is 802.11a/b/g/n/ac compliant.
The camera shoots at a generous 16-megapixels and records 4k video. Samsung has taken an interesting approach to shooting modes. You get a basic set – dual camera, virtual tour, panorama, shot & more (which offers options from burst mode photos), and beauty face. Hit the download button and you can get more – this should mean Samsung can keep its camera tools fresh and fun.
It goes without saying that Android 4.4 is the OS of choice, and that it has been skinned with TouchWiz. The marriage isn't always great. For example the settings menu looks very different to the app drawer. I like the look of the former, but it jars against the latter. Samsung has de-bloated the number of preloaded apps, so there are fewer of them this time around, though they are available for download of course, through Samsung's own app portal which competes with Play. Among those apps that remain is S Planner, Samsung's very nice calendar app – I'd be sorry to lose that. I'm not a fan of My Magazine, a news aggregator which occupies a home screen, so I turned it off. I don't doubt it will find fans, though.
Other familiar Samsung tweaks are intact. Air View lets you preview data by hovering a finger above the screen, you can view two apps at the same time using Multi Window, and Smart Stay keeps the screen on while you are looking at it regardless of timeout settings.
With a 2,800mAh battery the Samsung Galaxy S5 might feel a little underpowered, but I found I could get through a day without much trouble, and if you really think you need it you could buy a second battery as this one is accessible. Alternatively you can switch into either Power Saving or Ultra Power Saving mode – the latter takes everything out except the absolute basics and leaves you with a black and white screen, but as we've noted elsewhere, it's very effective.
There is so much crammed into the Galaxy S5 that it is likely most people won't ever touch some of the features. So why build them in? Well, different people will use different features, of course. Samsung has carefully avoided painting itself into a corner with app-bloat though. Instead it has added new features while removing some apps, so that the overall effect is a tidier handset than some might have expected.
The two key irritations here are the poor speaker and fully plastic build, but if you can live with those downsides, this is an excellent handset.
Manufacturer and Model
Samsung Galaxy S5
2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
5.1in, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, 432ppi
72.5 x 8.1 x 142mm (WxDxH)