Fingerprint Scanner and Pulse Monitor
These are the two big, new features on the S5. Samsung dialed back on software additions and decided to try a few hardware tricks. The fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5s has been well received and I personally find it both practical and useful. It's easier and quicker than typing in a password to unlock your phone, and that means you're more likely to use it. The same is true of the Samsung's Synaptics fingerprint scanner that, like the iPhone 5s, is embedded in the home button. It's easy and reliable, though it's designed for two-handed use where one hand holds the phone while the other swipes a finger. You can try to train it to recognize your thumb dragged sideways across the sensor but it will notice what you're doing and tell you to swipe your finger downward rather than sideways. Recognition is good when used as directed and you can use it to unlock the phone, log into your Samsung account and with PayPal.
But it's not perfect, or even as secure as the iPhone 5s, though Samsung could easily create firmware improvements to deal with a few key issues. Keep in mind that sophisticated crooks could make a model of your finger if they lift your fingerprint, but unless you're Donald Trump, I don't think that's terribly likely to happen given the skills and patience required. Many fingerprint scanners are vulnerable to this sort of skilled attack, so we won't single out Samsung here. What Samsung must do is offer an option to lock the phone from further fingerprint swipe attempts after 3 or 5 failed swipes. Like the iPhone, it should then require you to enter the backup password created when you first enrolled your fingerprints. Needless to say, the fingerprint lockout should remain on even if the phone is rebooted. Right now, if you flunk 5 attempts it asks for the password, but putting the phone to sleep or rebooting it lets you swipe some more.
The heart rate monitor is embedded next to the rear camera flash and it works in conjunction with Samsung's S Health app that also acts as a pedometer and nutrition tracker. Cold fingers don't work well and you've got to position your finger to completely cover the scanner, but it does work. We tested repeatedly and it gave consistent and fairly accurate results (in our in-depth video review I demo using it while cycling). Is this a feature the world didn't realize it needed? Not so much.
Specs nerds get their knickers in a twist with every new Super AMOLED equipped Samsung phone. Yes, it uses "diamond" sub-pixels and there are fewer sub-pixels compared to IPS and LCD displays. Can you tell without a microscope? No. This is a sharp, high pixel density (432 PPI) 5.1" display with Samsung's usual extremely deep blacks and better than life vivid colors. As ever, you can choose from a few color profiles or opt for the default dynamic profile that will subtly change color balance and saturation depending on what's displayed at a given moment. The full HD 1920 x 1080 screen is simply stunning, though pro photographers and other color purists might still find it a bit over-saturated. Most folks will love it, and it makes my Xperia Z1s and HTC One M8 look a little dull. Viewing angles are extremely wide, and brightness, once Super AMOLED's Achilles' heel, is improved. It can reach 500 nits with auto-brightness enabled if you're standing outdoors in sunlight. It's actually quite readable in sunlight, which wasn't true of the Galaxy S4. Unfortunately, Samsung's auto-brightness is still too dim indoors, and if you disable it, you'll be scrambling to adjust brightness manually when you wander outside on a sunny day.
Calling and Data
Samsung makes excellent voice phones and call quality on our T-Mobile and AT&T review units was excellent. Incoming and outgoing voice have good volume and sound full and clear. For carriers that support WiFi calling like T-Mobile and Sprint, you may get even better call quality over WiFi. The phone played nicely with a variety of Bluetooth headsets, my BMW built-in Bluetooth and stereo Bluetooth speakers.
This is an LTE 4G phone with fallback to 3G and (gasp) EDGE. Samsung flaunted their new Download Booster that combines WiFi and 4G for even faster downloads. Sadly, for those who have an incredible need for data speeds, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint have disabled this feature, but our T-Mobile phone retains it. I personally don't have a great need for this feature, but it could come in handy at Starbucks where WiFi is particularly slow. When you first set up the phone it will ask you if you want to enable this feature, and you can later turn it on/off in settings. Be mindful that you may blow through your data allotment much more quickly if you turn this feature on. I suspect that's why three of the big four US carriers disabled it--imagine the customer service calls from irate customers who used up their data plan allowance in a week.
Performance and Horsepower
Like the HTC One M8, the Samsung Galaxy S5 uses Qualcomm's latest, greatest quad core mobile CPU, the Snapdragon 801, clocked at 2.5GHz. The 801 reminds us of Intel Haswell on laptops: it offers very little CPU performance improvements, decent graphics improvements and noticeably better battery life. This is a very fast 32 bit mobile CPU that currently sits at the top of benchmarks. Despite Samsung's heavy software overlay, we experienced no lag and the phone is responsive even when playing 4K video and demanding 3D games like Real Racing 3. The Snapdragon 801 brings support for faster DDR3 rather than DDR2 RAM, and that gives the Adreno 330 graphics chip a lift in benchmarks. The GS5 has 16 gigs of internal storage with approximately 11 gigs free for your use.
||3DMark Ice Storm
|Samsung Galaxy S5
|Samsung Galaxy Alpha
|Samsung Galaxy Note 4
|Samsung Galaxy Note Edge
|Motorola Droid Turbo
|HTC One M8
|Moto X (2nd gen)
|Sony Xperia Z1S
|Samsung Galaxy Note 3
|Samsung Galaxy S4
|HTC One M7
|Sony Xperia Z
|LG Optimus G Pro
|Samsung Galaxy Note II
|Samsung Galaxy S III
Geekbench 3: 974 single core, 2954 multi-core
Camera resolution creeps up yearly, and though pixel count doesn't tell the whole story, in general you can count on better quality images and videos with each generation. The Galaxy S5 is no exception, and Samsung makes good cameras, so it's only natural that their tech would trickle down to smartphones. The 16 megapixel rear camera has the usual amenities, including a backside illuminated sensor, HDR, panorama and fast/slow motion video recording. The ISOCELL camera uses both traditional contrast detection autofocus and phase detection autofocus (a combo usually only found on higher end DSLRs). Samsung claims this results in very fast focus times, and the camera indeed focuses quickly. Photo detail and exposure are improved over the Galaxy S4, though the difference isn't night and day; in part because the S4 has a very good camera too. Those who shoot video will appreciate the 4K resolution recording mode that captures very high resolution video that looks sharper than 1080p video even when viewed on a less than 4K monitor or TV. The drawback of 4K recording is that it reveals the camera's shortcomings, like serious blockiness when you pan the camera. We also wish the camera had optical image stabilization for less jitters when recording video while moving (the software-based stabilization isn't nearly as effective). So how are photo and video quality? Excellent and only the Nokia Lumia models with PureView 20MP and 41MP cameras clearly best it.
The front 2MP camera's quality is quite good, even if the resolution hasn't increased from last year's model. It can capture 1080p video and delivers clear video chat footage. It can't compete with the HTC One M8's 5MP front camera, but it's above average and you won't look like a blotchy mess.
Finally, improvements in battery life! That's been a sore point for smartphones as their displays get larger and CPUs get faster. The Samsung Galaxy S5 has a removable 2800 mAh Lithium Ion battery. We always love Samsung's engineers for finding a way to keep the phone slim while providing a replaceable battery. That's a large capacity battery for a 5" class phone and that translates into long battery life. The Snapdragon 801 is a fast but very power-frugal CPU and it too contributes to the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8's (both run on the 801) solid battery life. We averaged 1.5 days on a charge with moderate use that included social networking, email, web browsing, 45 minutes of Netflix and calls. Our battery monitor reported 8 hours of actual screen on time, which is impressive by today's standards.
Samsung, like Apple, is a juggernaut and by reputation, repeat buyers and feature list alone we all know that Samsung will sell many million GS5 phones. Though you could call it an incremental upgrade, it does bring a few new features--for example the fingerprint scanner, that are genuinely useful and the camera is noticeably better than the already sharp Galaxy S4. This is the best looking Galaxy S yet, even if Samsung eschews what they consider to be expensive and heavy metal bodies in favor of slim designs and removable batteries. In fact, I completely understand that design choice and I'm glad there are phones for both camps on the market. Beyond that, the phone is nice enough looking and we like the feel of the faux leather stippled back on the black model. Performance is top notch but we'd still like to see Samsung pare down the "everything plus the kitchen sink" panoply of software features for something a little more streamlined and simple. The display is one of the best you'll find on a smartphone in terms of color vibrancy, sharpness and resolution--no doubt many folks will be sold once they see the display in store. It may not be revolutionary, but the Samsung Galaxy S5 is still one of the top Android smartphones money can buy.
Websites: www.samsung.com, wireless.att.com, www.sprint.com. www.t-mobile.com, www.verizonwireless.com
Price: May vary by carrier, average price is $199 with 2 year contract and $650 without contract
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Directly above: the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5.