Samsung Galaxy S5 review: first look
Samsung has launched its latest Galaxy S5 smartphone at the Barcelona MWC trade show, boasting a smart new design and a number of new features. Surprisingly, the firm has chosen not to boost the screen resolution of the phone, sticking with 1,080 x 1,920, and has only slightly increased the size of the display, from 5in to 5.1in.
Instead, Samsung is pinning its hopes on going “back to basics” with the new handset. “We’ve decided to … focus on the features and things that matter the most to our customers – namely the camera, ability to view and download data and content quickly, and their health and wellbeing,” said Simon Stanford, of Samsung UK.
As expected, the headline feature of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is its fingerprint reader, built into the home button, just like the iPhone 5s. In a bid to avoid accusations of plagiarism, however, Samsung has added a little bit extra.
Naturally, the sensor can be used to unlock the phone, but it can also be used to authorise PayPal payments within the browser. In another “one up” on Apple, a finger swipe also unlocks the new Private mode, which gives you an encrypted area in which you can store photos, videos and sensitive documents.
It’s easy to get started with: a quick eight swipes down over the home button is enough to register a digit, and up to three can be registered at any one time.
There’s more, though. Flip the phone over, rest your finger on the sensor next to the flash, and the S5 will also read your pulse – again an easy thing to do, although it’s slightly awkward to reach one-handed.
Anyone hoping for Nokia Lumia 1020 rivalling uber-resolution will be disappointed – at least at first, however. The S5’s shooter goes up to only 16 megapixels – a long way short of recent offerings from Sony and Nokia. Instead, Samsung has focused on improving the performance and features. The most interesting of these is a completely revamped autofocus mechanism.
The S5 uses a hybrid autofocus system, which combines the traditional contrast detect system used by other smartphones and compact cameras, with the phase detect system employed by mirrorless and DSLR cameras. It results in claimed autofocus speeds of 0.3 seconds.
It’s certainly very snappy for a smartphone. When we had a go with it after the press conference, we were able to shoot sharply focused images quickly and reliably. It certainly seems to deliver the goods.
The camera also introduces selective focus, which allows quick background defocusing with a tap of the screen, and HDR processing for video. The selective focus didn’t work quite as well as the hybrid autofocus, with one of our test shots showing a clearly discernible line between the in- and out-of-focus areas.
Screen and internals
With such a small increase in screen size, and no bump in resolution, there isn’t much to report with regards to the display. It’s as intensely bright and packed with contrast as you’d expect a Super AMOLED display to be.
Samsung says it has developed new algorithms that adapt the contrast profile depending on the screen content and ambient light – unfortunately, we had no way of determining how effective this was within the confines of the conference centre.
Inside, the processor has been upgraded to a quad-core, 2.5GHz chip with 2GB of RAM, but Samsung glossed over those details, instead preferring to concentrate on wireless grunt: the S5 now boasts faster Cat 4 4G connectivity, and 2×2 stream 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Interestingly, these two connections can be bonded together, using the rather cheesily named Download Booster, to provide a faster internet connection.
Finally, but by no means least, the Galaxy S5 now boasts an even bigger battery than before, rising to 2,800mAh from the 2,600mAh of the S4. To help you extend the battery life, there’s also a new “Ultra Power Saving Mode”, which turns the display to black-and-white and shuts down non-essential services when the battery gets really low.
To be honest, Samsung’s engineers didn’t have an awful lot to work with here. It’s pretty difficult to make what was already a very thin and light device much smaller, and so it has proved this year.
The S5 is only a small evolution of the S4 in design terms, and from the front you’d struggle to tell the difference between it and the S4: it’s a big phone with a very narrow bezel.
The finish of the rear panel has been changed. It’s now perforated, and is available in four different colours: white, black, electric blue and bronze. It’s still removable and made of plastic, as before, but feels a little more pleasant to hold – slightly soft (but not rubbery) under the finger.
Perhaps more important is the change you can’t see. The S5 is now water- and dust-resistant, just like Motorola’s Moto X and Moto G phones, and is rated to IP67, so it will survive a soaking in the rain or a desktop tea-spillage disaster. It isn’t gasket sealed such as Sony’s Xperia phones, but instead treated with a special coating inside and outside; we wouldn’t take it on a diving trip.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 will be available for purchase worldwide on 11 April. It too early to make a definitive judgement, but so far, we like the firm’s new flagship.
Instead of focusing on the numbers game, or changing what was already great about its predecessor, Samsung has managed to come up with a convincing-looking package. The phone is finally water-resistant; it has a camera that – with its hybrid autofocus system – should be able to take sharper pictures faster than its rivals; and it has a bigger battery than ever without sacrificing too much in the way of heft.
Hopefully the fingerprint reader, with its PayPal support will prove a convenience, but only time will tell here. We’ll report back in full as soon as we have a full review sample in our hands. In the meantime, stay tuned.