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Hands On with The Samsung Galaxy S5: This Smartphone Offers a Lot — Maybe Too Much

Jul 30, 2014 01:04 AM EDT

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When Samsung launched its flagship Galaxy S5 earlier this year, it promised to up the specs, downplay the gimmicks, and offer a premium device that could stand up to the iPhone 5s in both capability and in its modern "glam" looks. After a couple weeks with the GS5, it's obvious Samsung has delivered on half of that admirably, but this year's iteration of Samsung's flagship Android smartphone still remains the anti-iPhone.

Basics: Is This 'Premium'?

The Galaxy S5 does many things very well, as the latest flagship from Samsung should, and it features several big improvements over my personal (and still) favorite Samsung device, the oft-maligned Galaxy S4.

But in its initial unveiling of the GS5, Samsung sounded like it was working on a refined iPhone-like flagship that could poach some Apple fans into the Android camp. The company said that with the GS5, it was going "back to basics," focusing on delivering "what matters most to consumers."

It obviously didn't hear the choruses of consumers crying out for a Galaxy S phone with a premium look and feel after the plastic GS4, or maybe it thought the GS5's softer plastic would be good enough.

Coming from someone who loves the GS4 -- that 100 percent smudge-prone, insubstantial-feeling, shiny polycarbonate slate -- I even have to say the GS5 fails to deliver in the look-and-feel department. Yes, it feels slightly more solid than the GS4 without being too heavy, but there seem to be few chassis improvements, and some design elements are left feeling unfinished or rushed:

The rear camera, just like with the GS4, still protrudes out the back, leading to lens-smash paranoia; the backlighting of the capacitive buttons (at least on the white model) actually bleeds beyond the icons; the faux metal rim protrudes uncomfortably around the touchscreen; and whatever extra grip you get out of the soft, plastic, dimpled back panel isn't worth being reminded of uncooked chicken whenever you look at it. (Again, maybe only on the white model; it also comes in black, blue, and gold.)

(Photo : Robert Schoon)

These might seem like quibbles -- and they are -- but they're design problems that iPhone users, who might be considering a switch, would likely find glaring. And they illustrate that, despite the hype, Samsung's devices are still more about functionality than form, and the GS5 represents no change in that priority.

Specs and Performance

The GS5 still can't compete in looks, but with this smartphone, Samsung is still doing what it does best: blazing fast performance on a brilliant screen with seemingly endless ways to personalize your use of the phone -- not to mention lots of bells and whistles, despite Samsung's purported "back to basics" approach.

The GS5 is powered by a quad-core Snapdragon 801 running at 2.5 GHz with 2GB RAM. For almost any uses, this is plenty, and it'll likely last you far into the future before feeling like it's lagging behind newer smartphones.

The display is still a Super AMOLED touchscreen running at 1080p full HD, which, while not an upgrade from the GS4, looks crisp and clear, with incredibly good contrast, great visibility in bright environments, and impressively wide visibility from any viewing angle you're likely to actually look at the screen from. However, pixel density on the screen took a little hit when Samsung nudged the GS5's screen up from the GS4's 5.0-inches to 5.1-inches (441 ppi vs. 432 ppi, respectively). And it's not quite clear why Samsung decided it needed to provide that extra screen real-estate, since it does make one-handed operation feel ever-slightly more unwieldy while noticeably expanding the GS5's overall footprint.

 (Photo : Robert Schoon) That 4% more screen space also translates into a slightly bigger, slightly more awkward-to-handle device.

Keeping the 1080p resolution was a good move though, as the GS5 includes a larger 2800 mAh battery that significantly improves upon the GS4's battery life: During a weeklong vacation, I inadvertently left the GS5 on in standby mode, without a full charge, and it still had hours worth of moderate use left in the battery, seven days later. And that's without using Samsung's new "Ultra Power Saver" mode.

Regular use, and even heavy video-intensive use, couldn't drain the fully charged GS5 before I was ready to end the day, and the next day (after leaving it uncharged), the GS5 was still chipper -- ready to last through the whole workday before finally protesting that it needed to recharge. Even then, I suspect it could've lasted another 12 hours of normal use before finally dying. You won't find that in an iPhone.

The GS5 also improves on the GS4's camera, upping the quality to 16 megapixels and adding a second sensor to (thankfully) speed up the autofocus, which was a big weak point of Samsung's previous smartphone. But we'll focus more on the camera in a snap.

Finally, you can get the GS5 with 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, but with a possible 128GB of microSD expansion, storage capacity won't be a concern.

Camera

The GS5's camera is definitely just an evolution from Samsung's previous iteration, and it's still not as high-powered as the Lumia 1020's, as unique in capability as the HTC One's, or as well balanced and reliably point-and-click as the iPhone's camera.

But it's pretty reliable, and much better than the GS4's camera. With its phase detection autofocus, the GS5's standard mode was ready for a well-focused snapshot before I was done framing the picture almost every time. Most photos turned out great, though the GS5 still occasionally has trouble with low-light photos and producing a balanced flash, as do most smartphone cameras (with the exception of HTC's "Ultrapixel" sensor designed specifically for those situations).

But in normal lighting, pictures are super-sharp and quite zoom-able. And for you shutterbugs, the GS5's HDR mode, 4K video recording, post-shot adjustable selective focus, and loads of other modes, features, and customizations should keep you entertained. I'm just glad Samsung made the volume rocker the default shutter key in camera mode so I don't have to hunt for the virtual button.

Extra Features

The GS5 comes equipped with the capability to do almost anything you'd want it to do -- and a lot of things you'll never use, care about, or perhaps even know about.

In this respect once again, despite hyping the opposite, the GS5 really is the latest anti-iPhone, which could be a weakness for consumers looking for a simple, set experience. But if you're a fan of endlessly customizable Android and overly complex Samsung devices, the GS5 just gives you more toys to choose from.

Much like the GS4, there are a lot features you'll try once and never use again. Remember the GS4's SmartScroll? Probably not, but the GS5 has it, along with lots of other little UI gesture options that you may or may not find useful. Similarly, the fingerprint sensor is clunky and pretty much ignorable for all but a small percentage of people. Same goes with the heartbeat sensor on the back and its accompanying S Health app, which most people will probably never take advantage of.

Software-wise, the GS5 offers the same abundance of options with its go-to TouchWiz UI layered over Android 4.4.2 KitKat. It means some (sometimes) useful features like multi-window or expanded quick settings in the notifications panel, but other flourishes like an on-screen floating "toolbox" that I predict approximately 0 percent of users will find not annoying.

The point, though, is that Samsung provides these capabilities if you do actually need them, and that goes to the core of what many Android fans love. It may take a month to discover and set up everything you want, bury everything you don't, and customize your phone just for you, but that's what we like.

Some call it "feature creep," I call it "more options." Give me that over a rigidly structured iPhone any day, even if that iPhone is elegantly ready to go, right out of the box.

And there are a couple little things that the Samsung GS5 features in the background that set it above most competitors, including Apple. As previously mentioned, the 128GB microSD slot means you'll likely never want for storage, while the battery similarly offers an experience free of any power scarcity.

But the chief example is the GS5's IP67 certified body (unattractive though it may be). Simply put, the GS5 removes the number one source of daily paranoia for smartphone owners: water. With the attached USB cover in place, the GS5 is rated to survive 30 minutes at a depth of about three feet. You don't even need a plug for the waterproof headphone jack, (which, by the way, provides a satisfying, firmly-holding "click" for your headphones -- a huge improvement over the GS4's unfortunately flimsy output).

You shouldn't take it swimming, but if you get pushed in the pool this summer or a friend spills a beer on it, you'll never worry again about your expensive phone being ruined. This feature is so very nice -- on a day-to-day psychological level -- that it's baffling that right now only Sony and Samsung offer this piece-of-mind built in to their flagship phones.

Is the Samsung Galaxy S5 Worth It?

On-contract, the GS5 normally costs about $200 for most carriers. But now that it's been out for a couple months, you'll find a lot of deals that can lower that cost by anywhere from $50 to $150, depending on the carrier, trade-ins, and special offers. Unsubsidized, the Samsung Galaxy S5 costs over $600, which is probably only an attractive option through installment plans, like AT&T Next or T-Mobile's.

If you're looking to stay on a contract and are up for an upgrade, go with the Samsung Galaxy S5 if you really like Android and customizable features.

If you're a fan of Samsung already, this is a no-brainer, but people coming from older Motorola, HTC, LG, or no-name Android phones will likely find the GS5 a veritable playground of features and personalization, too. People who have only experienced the iPhone before will probably be happier off staying with simple, but it's at least worth giving the GS5 a spin in-store.

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