Glam or gaudy? The Samsung Galaxy S5 pushes style, but 'chic' is up for debate

An aesthetic diatribe

Smartphones are funny. They are, first and foremost, tools for communication. Their primary purpose is to connect me with other people, be it through a phone call, messaging, or online in any one of a thousand other forms. Without exception, every smartphone does those things well. Those core competencies being nailed by everybody in the industry means that manufacturers have to differentiate in other ways.

That differentiation comes in the forms of software and hardware. The user interface is a complicated beast to differentiate. It still has to be functional and efficient (or at least not frustratingly inefficient), it should be discoverable and yet attractive. And it still has to fit into the trends of modern design, lest it appear dated in comparison to its counterparts (hello, BlackBerry 10).

We saw that evolution taking place with the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S5. The latest Samsung flagship smartphone is faster and bigger and generally better all around than its predecessors, but even as a leader in the marketplace Samsung still had to bow to the demands of contemporary design.

The overwrought, occasionally downright cartoonish TouchWiz user interface that afflicted nearly every preceding Samsung Android device was toned down considerably on the Galaxy S5. It’s still recognizably TouchWiz, but the interface has adopted more of the flattened styling that’s been a growing trend in interface design. Samsung pared things back a bit so that the experience on the S5 is closer to that of Android as Google intended it, though it’s still quite a ways off.

The TouchWiz interface on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is better. It’s not as gaudy, but still as colorful. It’s not as intrusive, but even more feature-packed. It’s still functional, and more intuitive as a result of Samsung’s rethinking.

Hardware is a different story than software. Over the seven years since the original iPhone was unveiled to the world, there’s been only a few constants in design: a sheet of glass on the front with a speaker at the top, and a back with a cut-out for a camera. Placement of everything else — power and volume buttons, loud speakers, navigation controls, ports, scanners, et al has been up in the air.

And that’s not even talking about materials, hard edges vs. curves, simplicity vs. complication, and so much more that goes into the physical design of a smartphone (or what goes inside the phone) And that’s where my issue with the Samsung Galaxy S5 comes into play.

I’ll admit, I haven’t seen the phone in person. I haven’t held it in my hand. I’ve poured over the photos and videos since the announcement, wondering all along, “What was Samsung thinking?”

There’s only so much one can do with the front of a smartphone. It’s dominated by a screen, after all.

From the front, the Galaxy S5 is an unassuming yet attractive device. There’s only so much one can do with the front of a smartphone. It’s dominated by a screen, after all. The home button is still there, as are the flanking capacitive buttons (with menu mercifully replaced by multitasking).

But flip the Galaxy S5 over and “oh my god what happened?” The Galaxy S4 before it wasn’t what I would call an attractive device. The glossy, reflective back made of plastic was a poor choice. It felt bad, it looked bad, it wore over time horribly. The Galaxy S4 looked, and once you picked it up it even started to feel cheap. With competition like the HTC One and iPhone 5 out there, it was unacceptable.

Not that it mattered. Thanks to Samsung’s super-aggressive marketing push they were able to sell tens of millions of the Galaxy S4 to customers around the globe. By all measures, the S4 was a successful device. Even if I was turned off by its appearance.

And then the Galaxy Note 3 was announced with its faux stitched leather back. Reading about it, it just sounds tacky as hell, but in reality it's actually a nice effect. The "stitching" is subtle and the leather texture, while obviously not leather, adds a nice grippiness to it that the plasticy. Not to mention that it actually didn’t look bad.

I remember recoiling in horror the first time I read those words “stitched leather”.

I remember recoiling in horror the first time I read those words “stitched leather”, but it wasn’t that bad. So when Samsung pushed out the Galaxy S4 Black Edition with the same stitched leather effect back as was on the Note 3, and unveiled tablets with the same back, I wasn’t appalled.

I’ll admit, I was curious what Samsung was going to do design-wise for the Galaxy S5. It was evident that they weren’t going to go for an all-out aesthetic redesign, just as the Galaxy S4 wasn’t radically different than the Galaxy S3. Granted, by being a different size it ended up being a totally different phone — no iPhone-style #s updates here.

I think I audibly let out a sound that was something along the lines of “aaaahuughhhh” upon seeing the shimmering dimpled gold back of the Galaxy S5.

And then they turned the phone around. I think I audibly let out a sound that was something along the lines of “aaaahuughhhh” upon seeing the shimmering dimpled gold back of the Galaxy S5. Thankfully I was by myself so I didn’t have to explain that weird auditory reaction to a smartphone keynote.

I’m no expert in fashion or design, I’ll admit that. But when I look at the back of the Galaxy S5, no matter if it’s the black, white, gold, or blue version, I see something that just screams “TACKY!” in brilliant, neon letters at me. I see a fashion statement from 1984.

I see a fashion statement from 1984.

If you’ll recall, some months ago when the first rumors of a gold-tinted iPhone 5s were floated, the internet reacted in horror at the tackiness of such a move. We imagined some hideously blinged-out monstrosity that would only be fit for mobsters, Russian oligarchs, and the Real Housewives of Nobody Gives a Damn. But what we got was actually more along the lines of what you get when you get a car with champagne paint. It’s a metallic tan, and in the right light you get a richer gold effect. But most of the time it’s subtle and attractive.

The Galaxy S5, on the other hand, is everything we feared when the gold iPhone rumors surfaced. Especially in gold, but even the other three colors are garish travesties of design and fashion. The pillowy look brought on by the dimples is only accentuated by the metallic gloss, which is still somehow soft-touch (I worry about how well it will wear over time).

It’s disappointing to see Samsung make such a huge leap of progress in updating their user interface to something more attractive and functional while simultaneously taking several steps in the wrong direction with their hardware design.

But what do I know? They’ll sell millions of them anyway.