We weigh in on how Samsung's leading Galaxy S held up for a year
At this point in the Galaxy S5's life it's pretty well overshadowed both physically and metaphorically by the larger, metal-clad Galaxy Note 4, but that doesn't mean Samsung's early-2014 flagship doesn't still have its place in the world. As we approach one year since its announcement at MWC 2014 Samsung is still selling them by the millions all over the world, winning over customers with a solid feature set, full waterproofing and a size that fits more people's hands.
Some of us here at Android Central have been using the Galaxy S5 regularly since it was announced, and now it's time to give our feelings on the phone as it reaches its first birthday. Read along and see how we've managed using the GS5 for nearly a full year.
1. Hardware tradeoffs
In a world of precisely-machined metal and glass phones with unique designs, it's hard to call the Galaxy S5 a beautiful device. That being said the plastic gives you durability, a comfortable feel and waterproofing — has it turned out to be a worthy tradeoff for you?
Phil Nickinson: It's not that hard to call it a beautiful device. I'm pretty sure I did it (or came close) in our hands-on video. Or maybe I came close to it. For whatever reason, that dimpled back did good things to me. And I think that's very much because I got to see the four colors together — white, black, gold and blue. In that context, and with the soft-touch back (not all colors sported that feature), I liked the design just fine. It's Samsung. It's meat and potatoes. It's lacking the design chops of, say, HTC and LG, but that's not to say it's badly designed.
(That said, I completely agree with what Alex is about to say with the port situation.)
Alex Dobie: Having spent some quality time with late 2014 Samsung offerings like the Galaxy Alpha and Galaxy Note 4, the Galaxy S5 looks and feels like a toy by comparison. I may have praised it the time for doing plastic better than its predecessors, but things have moved on considerably since we first saw the GS5. Many lesser-known manufacturers have Samsung's 2014 flagship firmly beaten on design and build quality, and that's surely been reflected in sales of the device.
And to hell with that annoying plastic flap and lopsided USB 3.0 port.
That said, the quantum leap in industrial design represented by the Note 4 gives me hope for the Galaxy S6.
Andrew Martonik: To this day I'm still a big fan of the soft dimpled back on the Galaxy S5. It reminds me a lot of what ASUS did with the original Nexus 7 — it just stays put in your hand, without getting greasy or weird over time like some soft-touch materials can. Sadly, that great back plate meets up with some very poorly-done shiny plastic, which makes a half-hearted attempt at being metal and really brings down the overall quality of the device.
The Galaxy S5 is built like a tank and mine has nary a scratch or ding on it despite being tossed around a bit — and the fact that it's waterproof means I just haven't worried about where I go with the phone. It's just a shame that that has to come with a pretty low-quality look in an otherwise high-end device. Considering the new materials and designs that came out of the Galaxy Note 4 and even the lower-end Galaxy A series I suspect the cheap plastic is gone for good, and I won't shed a tear for its departure.
Russell Holly: I wouldn't call the GS5 an ugly phone, but it is certainly not a device where the design is a contributing factor in your purchase. The big benefit to this design has been its durability. I have dropped this phone more than most others, and you wouldn't know that by looking at it. I never felt like this phone needed to be in a case to survive, and that's a big deal for me as I'm not a fan of cases to begin with. I certainly wouldn't complain if Samsung dropped the tacky chrome bezels, and if devices we've seen from Samsung since the launch of the GS5 are any indicator my wish has already been granted.
2. All of those bells and whistles
Samsung is known for throwing every feature but the kitchen sink at its phones. The GS5 packs a Finger Scanner, heart rate monitor and IR controller on top of its usual Air View, Multi Window and Smart Stay software features — but do you find yourself using any of it on a regular basis?
Phil: The finger scanner and heart-rate monitor were pretty much non-starters for me. Same for the IR controller, but that's been the case for every phone I've had that also wanted me to use it as a non-tactile remote control. the finger scanner definitely has potential, but I just never got it to work well enough to serve as a full-time security mechanism. I do hate that I've never really gotten into the Air View and Multi Window features. I think if I used Samsung phones all the time I'd very much feel differently about them. They're very well done. Due to the nature of this job and having to use many devices over the course of the year, I tend to stick with things that translate from phone to phone. But that's not Samsung's fault.
Alex: I'll be honest — I ignored most of this stuff. The finger scanner was too awkwardly placed and unreliable to be of any use to me. Air View and Multi Window were useful on occasion, but the latter was later implemented in a much more intuitive way on the Note 4, as part of an expanded multitasking setup that's actually really well done on that device. And yeah, I have no use for a heart rate sensor on my phone. (Or my wrist, but that's another story.)
Andrew: As is the case with many features that Samsung introduces on its Galaxy S line of phones, many of the new things on the Galaxy S5 ended up being better-used on the Note 4 instead. Many of the software features like Multi Window just make more sense on the larger screen, and the Finger Scanner seems to be considerably better on the Note 4.
Perhaps if I used the GS5 as my primary phone every day I'd be more accustomed to the extra software things, but as I switch devices often I just use the Galaxy S5 like I would any other phone and skip over all the fringe features I don't want. And the nice thing about all of these extra features is that they really don't get in the way much if you don't want them. It may take a few minutes to flip all of the appropriate toggles, but if you want more of a bare-bones feature set you can have it.
Russell: It took an update or two for the finger scanner to be reliable enough that I felt it was worth using, but the IR controller has been a big part of my use with the GS5. Smart Stay is on, but it still only works about 60 percent of the time and I don't bother relying on it. The rest of Samsung's software just takes up space, in my opinion, as every time I try them I immediately turn the features back off.
3. Working around TouchWiz's quirks
As users who get our hands a ton of devices with different software implementations, Samsung seems to end up near the bottom in terms of design and experience. Have you learned to live with TouchWiz through new keyboards, launchers and apps? Or does it still rub you the wrong way?
Phil: I used the first iterations of TouchWiz, and it's come a long way since then. In fact it's not the way that Samsung's software looks that's bothered me in the GS5. It's just that there's so much of it. I shouldn't feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of features in a phone. But that absolutely was the case with the GS5. And, again, it's not that they're bad features. Samsung's just packed a lot of good stuff in one device. Maybe too much.
Alex: In my opinion Samsung's still lagging behind HTC and Google (and probably even LG) when it comes to software design and UX. As Phil says, though, it's easy to forget how bad it used to be, and there's certainly less of TouchWiz (in its Lollipop-flavored incarnation) that looks like total garbage compared to the designed-for-humans-inspired-by-nature, life-companion-riddled dreck of old. Switching to the Google Now Launcher, and replacing some of the stock apps with Google's Play Store offerings was enough to make the GS5 more palatable for me.
Visuals are always going to be somewhat subjective. More importantly, I think Samsung still has some performance and responsiveness issues to overcome. Certain parts of its software, notably the Overview task-switching menu, are decidedly sluggish compared to stock Android.
Andrew: At this point I think we can stop bashing Samsung for how TouchWiz looks — the company has a design language it likes and it's going to stick with it for some time. After a year I have no issues with the way the GS5's software looks — I just install Google Now Launcher and a new keyboard app and get on with my life. Where Samsung really needs to improve is in terms of performance, features and user experience. The issues I still have with TouchWiz are the poor choices in button placement, the inability to change some very niche interface elements and the haphazard design approach between apps. If anything I wish Samsung would spend more time tweaking TouchWiz, that way it'd at least be a consistent experience.
Russell: I find I don't mind Samsung's keyboard enough to hunt for a replacement, but the launcher got replaced almost immediately. I went with Action Launcher for a while, and moved to Google Now Launcher shortly after. The rest of the Samsung user interface wasn't a deal-breaker for me prior to Android 5.0, but with Google's Lollipop quick actions outpacing Samsung, it's hard to appreciate the wall of dots offered by TouchWiz.
4. Post-Lollipop impressions
Of course Samsung finally started pushing Lollipop to bring the GS5 up to date with other phones. Does it do anything to change your feelings on TouchWiz, or did the update add more headaches than it fixed?
Phil: Like anything else in this world, you can get used to anything if you use it enough. Same goes for what Samsung's done with its Lollipop update. And we're still seeing it roll out here in the U.S., with different idiosyncrasies depending on what carrier you're on, so I hesitate a little to condemn one specific update.
Newer model: Samsung Galaxy S6
Alex: I give Samsung a B+ for effort with Lollipop. There's a lot they're doing right, particularly with animations, colors, circular buttons and generally trying to abide by Google's Material Design guidelines, even if not always 100 percent successfully. Yet it's still something of an awkward mix of two visual styles right now, and there are jarring instances where the fluid animations of Android 5.0 are abruptly halted by menus appearing out of nowhere.
It could be better, but it also could've been a lot worse.
Andrew: I think part of the reason why people are so so upset with the Lollipop update on the GS5 is that they've seen a lot of nice looking (and performing) updates hit other devices first, without thinking about what was most likely to happen. That being said, Samsung really seems to have not thought this update through much. The differences in the way sound and mute are handled between different versions of the device are frustrating for most who have them, and the "pick and choose" mentality of where to integrate Material Design and stick with the old TouchWiz look gives a really disjointed experience. Here's to hoping that the ground-up Android 5.0-based builds on future phones are more cohesive.
Russell: Samsung's Lollipop experience is awkward and confusing on the GS5. There are a lot of places where the animations mix Lollipop and KitKat, with TouchWiz and Material Design clashing in some strange areas. To make matters worse, some features are wildly different between the International and U.S. versions of the same phone. Samsung isn't likely to make too many more UI changes now that these updates are live, but it would be really nice if there was at least some uniformity to their release across variants of the same device.
5. What are your feelings on the Galaxy S5 over the last year?
Considering its sales Samsung has clearly done a thing or two right with the Galaxy S5, and most of the pillars of the phone have held up over the last year. We've weighed in with our own opinions of the phone, but we also want to know what you think of it. If you've been using the phone for the past year, let us know how it's done for you — you can always continue the discussion in the forums!