Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

If you can say one thing about Samsung's Galaxy S line of smartphones, it's that they consistently pair some of the best hardware with inexplicable software. The S5 scales back Samsung's bells and whistles, which helps make it easily the best Galaxy phone yet. If only they'd gone even further.

What Is it?

Samsung's new flagship Android phone. It's got a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display, a beast of processor in Qualcomm's 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801, 2GB RAM, a 16MP camera, and a 2800mAh battery. It runs Android 4.4.2 (KitKat) at launch with Samsung's TouchWiz skin on top.

Why Does It Matter?

The members of the Galaxy S family of phones have been among the most popular handsets on the planet, and the S5 will be no exception. But it's not just another cookie cutter successor. It marks the first time Samsung has promised to pare down its bloated software package, meaning the hardware can finally shine without being weighed down by TouchWiz. Most importantly, though, it's one of only three or four smartphones that can legitimately contend for the title of best.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Left to right: Galaxy S4, Galaxy S5, Galaxy S3

Design

You'd be forgiven for confusing the Galaxy S5 with the S4, or even the S3. It's slightly larger, with a few subtle tweaks thrown in, but Samsung's taking a page out of Apple's playbook by keeping a consistent aesthetic from year to year. That's a smart move; by this point, you can spot a Galaxy S phone from halfway down the block.

The changes to this year's model are small but still worth mentioning. While the S5 retains two capacitive keys and a physical, clickable home button, the capacitive keys are now Back and Multitasking, instead of Back and Menu. In other words, the menu buttons are now all on the screen and in the app. That's in line with stock Android, and goes a long way towards helping the app ecosystem cohere.

The home button, too, has changed. It might look the same as ever, but the S5 adds a fingerprint scanner, used primarily for locking and unlocking your phone. It requires that you swipe your finger, rather than just press it like on the iPhone 5S.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

You'll also notice that there's a plug covering the USB port at the bottom of the S5. Why? Because the Galaxy S5 has an IP67 certification, which means it can be immersed in up to a meter of water (hello, shower time!) for up to half an hour. Also, that's not your standard micro USB port under the cover. It's actually a full USB 3.0 port, which allows for very fast data transfers, but don't worry, you can still plug any micro USB cable into it.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

The back cover (which is still removable) introduces a wall of dimples, which some folks have found ugly but is really totally inoffensive, especially in the dark grey handset we tested. More importantly, the divots give the S5 some much-needed grip. There's a not-too-pronounced hump for the camera, and just below that sits a flash with a built-in pulse oximeter. Third-party apps have let you use your phone's lens/flash as an oximeter for years, but here the feature is built-in, and at least now you don't need to grease up your lens? Sure!

While it's the most solid-feeling Galaxy phone yet—Samsung finally ditched the plastic—from a design standpoint, it still pales in comparison to the HTC One. It feels cheaper, even if it isn't.

It's also a bit bigger than the S4 to accommodate the 0.1-inch larger screen, which frankly, wasn't worth it. Compared to other 5-inchers, it's slightly shorter than the HTC One (and just barely wider), but it's noticeably taller and wider than the Nexus 5.

As it tends to on any device, the Super AMOLED screen on the S5 skews lightly green, while the Super LCD 3 on the One and the IPS+ on the Nexus 5 tend to be a bit rosier. Comparing the three side by side, though, the Galaxy S5 was the brightest, and it had the deepest blacks and the most vibrant colors.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Left to right HTC One 2014, Galaxy S5, Nexus 5

Using It

For starters, Samsung's proprietary UI (aka TouchWiz) has, as promised, been scaled back a good deal. What was a cluttered mess last year is no longer as cluttered or messy. It actually looks way better. Samsung cast off a lot of the vestigial feature-phone looks, and as a result, it looks more like a modern Android phone.

The overall UI blends more seamlessly with the apps you run (regardless of whether they're Samsung's native apps, basic Google services, or third-party offerings) which makes the whole experience come together better. The little accommodations add up; holding down the home button will now simply take you to Google Now, rather than Samsung's not-so-great S Voice. Progress!

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

The myriad bells and whistles that Samsung introduced last year are all still here, but at least they're disabled by default. Again, that's great. I'm sure there were a few people who actually used Air View (which gives you limited control over your phone without actually touching it), and those four or five dudes will be psyched to know the the option is still there, lurking deep in the settings menu.

Speaking of settings, that's something Samsung still hasn't gotten right, a vestigial trace of the more-is-more philosophy that left its handsets so unnavigable in years past. In the main S5 Settings page alone there are 61 options, each represented by a circular icon. There's a ton of space in between each circle, too, so you have to scroll forever through a sea of circles that all look largely the same in order to find what you want.

Samsung didn't pre-install quite as many apps as last time, and left many of them blessedly opt-in, but if you're missing something—like say, the Animated Photo app which lets you make cinemagraphs—you can always download it from Samsung's own app shop.

Despite the crisper fit and finish, Samsung still hasn't fixed some of the deeper software problems. The phone is running the 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801, which means it should by rights be the fastest phone you can buy. It's not. The S5 still suffers from stutters and lag during operations as simple as scrolling between home screens, opening your app drawer, and even loading apps. It's even worse in some of Samsung's own apps. Samsung's Gallery app (which you need to use if you're going to take advantage of some of special photo modes) is so slow and buggy and its behavior is so unpredictable that it'll make you want to give up on it all together.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

S Health is another much-hyped feature that turns out to be a dog. The idea of using your phone as a Fitbit-like pedometer is a really good one, but the execution is really half-baked. You've got to turn on the pedometer in order for it to track your steps. Not so bad. But take it for a run and you'll see that it's where apps like Runkeeper and Endomondo were two years ago, with a confusing UI and lousy audio-coaching. It doesn't even play nicely with Samsung's own Gear Fit. It's unable to agree on how many steps I've actually taken, it generates two reports for each run (each with some data that matches, some that doesn't, and some fields missing all together), and there's nowhere to view my sleep report.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Then there's the fingerprint scanner. From what I've seen on the iPhone 5S, the fingerprint scanner works nine times out of ten, if not more, and that's by simply touching it. In my time with the S5, it worked roughly one out of every three or four times, mostly because you have to slide your finger at exactly the right angle for it to register. It's finicky at best, non-functional at worst. To increase your chances at success, scan both of your thumbs so that you can use either hand. Even then, it's dicey.

In terms of audio quality, the single speaker on the back of the S5 sounds miserable next to the dual front-facing speakers on the HTC One. It makes a big difference for listening to music, watching videos, and gaming if you're not using earbuds. The best I can say about them is that the S5 is loud enough that I didn't miss many calls,. Speaking of which, call quality was solid on AT&T's network, though the earpiece could definitely stand to be a bit louder.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

There's plenty of good news, though. Battery life is fantastic. With fairly moderate usage, the S5 lasted me about a day and a half. With heavy usage, it still made it well into the night. I'd estimate I got an extra hour or two of usage out of it over the HTC One, and it blows the Nexus 5 away. The Ultra Power Saving mode was legitimately helpful, flipping the phone into grayscale (AMOLED screens can save a lot of power that way) and disabling most apps and non-essential radio-connections, while still allowing you to make/receive calls, get texts, and manually check email. Think of it as an emergency mode. When my phone was down to 18-percent battery, Ultra Power Saving mode estimated it could get 2.2 days of standby time. Good to have in earthquake country.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Camera

In bright light, the S5's 16MP shooter is excellent. It tends to be a little over-saturated, and errs on the side of more contrast, but for mobile phone photos, that's just fine. For daylight photos, the S5 completely blows the HTC One out of the water. Once the sun goes down it's another story. The S5 really struggles with noise and detail in low-light.

That said, this is handily Samsung's most-successful camera yet. It claims to have the first phase detection autofocus system, and indeed, it focuses just as fast as the HTC One, which is to say very fast. It also does HDR live, meaning you don't have to guess what the photos might turn out like, you can see it in realtime, and you can toggle HDR on/off with a single press.

While it isn't the first phone to shoot HDR video, other attempts (HTC and Sony) have been total fiascos. The Galaxy S5 is the first phone to shoot HDR video that looks good. Really good, in fact. It can also shoot 4K UHD video at 30fps, 1080p video at 60fps, and 720p video at 120 and even 240 fps (though image quality does drop off). Samsung's phones have been the best in our video tests for the last few years, and it looks like the S5 is no exception.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Despite the fact that the camera app has an insane number of options and customizations, it's laid out fairly intuitively. If you don't want to dive into the features, then it's just fast and easy to use, but if you want to go nuts, you can. The S5 has some of the same effects as the HTC One, including options to selectively defocus the background or foreground. In general, it works more consistently than HTC's version, and pictures turn out sharper because of the better sensor, but it's still finicky and takes longer to shoot.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Some bells and whistles that debuted with the S4 are now housed under the Shot & More shooting mode. This mode takes a burst of photos then analyzes the pic and tells you what options you can use, including Best Photo, Best Face, Eraser (removes a moving object from the scene), Drama Shot, and Panning Shot. You used to have to select the option you wanted before shooting; this is definitely a better option. That said, the mode you were hoping for isn't always available to you, based on the shot you took, and to tweak these photos you have to use Samsung's Gallery app which is extremely slow and buggy.

All that being said, we'd definitely take this camera over the HTC One's or the Nexus 5's, though probably not over the Lumia 1020.

You can view all of the test shots from the S5 and some comparison shots with the HTC One here.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Like

Battery life is fantastic. The pared-pack look of the software is a definite improvement. The screen is absolutely lovely. The dimpled back panel makes the phone much less likely to slide out of your hand or off of your leg. IP67 waterproofiness should be mandatory on all phones!

The camera is capable of some really beautiful shots (as long as there's enough light). The Wi-Fi and 4G radios were both very fast (the Wi-Fi is MIMO capable). Samsung's quick-settings in the Notification panel are still super convenient. Graphic-heavy games play buttery smooth. It's the first camera we've seen that does HDR video well, and live-previews of HDR photos are great, too.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

No Like

While the software has gotten better, it's still well behind HTC's in terms of user-friendliness, and it's miles away from Motorola's and stock Android. There's just too much lag to be forgivable in a phone with so much horsepower under the hood. S Health and Gallery are especially slow and junky, but the same can be said for most of Samsung's apps. The fingerprint scanner is more trouble than it's worth, and the heart rate monitor on the back of the phone is essentially pointless.

While it's great that the S5 supports USB 3.0 and is waterproof, it also means having to deal with the little door every time you want to charge it, and fumbling to plug in a USB 3.0 cable in the dark is annoying. it wouldn't be such a big deal if it supported wireless charging, but it doesn't out of the box (you will be able to buy back covers that support wireless charging, but they're not for sale yet). The camera really struggles in low light. The external speaker is of very poor quality.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Review: Less Is So Much More

Should You Buy It?

The answer depends on how important battery life and photo quality are to you. If your answer is "very," then yes, you should buy it. The camera is way better than the HTC One's, and the battery life is way better than the Nexus 5. From there, you just have to decide if it's worth dealing with Samsung's software. If you've gotten along with TouchWiz just fine in the past, it's a no-brainer. This is easily the best version of TouchWiz yet.

If you're feeling more adventurous, you could also ditch Samsung's boss camera app, root the phone, and install a clean version of Android. There's been no mention of a Google Play Edition of the S5 yet, but we wouldn't be surprised if that happens at some point. You may lose all the lovely HDR tricks (and UHD) video, though. (Actually commenter Tad-bravo points out that you can install a clean ROM but keep the S5 camera app, in which case, YES, do that.)

Ultimately, the S5 is a quality phone with an excellent screen, a very nice camera, a rockstar processor, and fantastic battery life. For 200 bucks on contract, you could do a lot worse, as long as you can be happy with the phone you have, not the phone it could have been if Samsung had gotten fully out of its own way.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Specs

• Network: All major U.S. carriers
• OS: Android 4.4.2 with TouchWiz UI
• CPU: 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801
• Screen: 5.1-inch 1920x1080 Super AMOLED (432PPI)
• RAM: 2GB
• Storage: 16 or 32GB + micro SD up to 128GB
• Camera: 16MP rear / 2MP front
• Battery: 2800 mAh Li-Ion
• Dimensions: 5.59 x 2.85 x 0.32inches
• Weight: 5.11 ounces
• Price: Generally starts at $200 with a two-year contract