We've had our hands on the Galaxy S5 for over two months now — it's time to share how we feel Samsung's flagship has held up over time.
Each year, Samsung garners a massive amount of attention for its new flagship Galaxy S phone, and for good reason. With its official unveiling coinciding with Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and satellite events all around the world, Samsung did things up big with the Galaxy S5 just as you'd expect. Thankfully this wasn't another Broadway-style production with useless fluff blurring the message either, as Samsung absolutely had legitimate reasons to be proud of with the GS5.
The Galaxy S5 ushered in a new level of hardware refinement that made many of us rethink what defines Samsung's hardware design. It dropped most of the shiny hard plastic in favor of a nice soft-touch back plate, bumped up the internal hardware to check all of the boxes, improved the screen quality in nearly all metrics and kept the Samsung fans happy with a removable battery, SDcard and physical home button. The GS5 also introduced a new finger scanner in the home button and an interesting heart rate monitor alongside the camera flash on the back of the phone, showing some real hardware innovation.
It was apparent that Samsung spent plenty of time on the software as well, giving it more than just a fresh coat of paint and instead really unifying the whole software suite under a single design language. Samsung went with a flatter, more harmonious interface that uses a simpler color palette and fewer crazy neon highlights — this isn't the TouchWiz of 2010.
The real question is: how have all of the improvements in design and functionality in the Galaxy S5 translated into real-world use?
More: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Luckily we've had the opportunity for several of the editors here at Android Central to use the Galaxy S5 on a regular basis since it was released, and can shed some light on how we've found the GS5 to fit into our lives over the last two months. In order to give each of the editors here a chance to voice their feelings on the Galaxy S5, we've broken things down into a handful of questions, which each of us has answered in order to shed some light on using the device.
Build quality and hardware design
Although it didn't go to metal, Samsung really stepped up its game in terms of materials and build with the S5. How has yours held up in the past couple of months?
Jerry Hildenbrand: I like soft-touch plastic. More exotic materials are nice, and I understand the appeal, but I have no issues with a phone being made from a material that's durable and inexpensive — when it's done well. I think Samsung did a great job with the construction of the Galaxy S5, and the phone feels pretty good in your hands. Adding a bit of texture to the back cover was a step in the right direction, and keeps things from feeling slippery.
I have no issues with a phone being made from a material that's durable and inexpensive — when it's done well.
As for durability, I didn't have an S5 long enough to give any real opinion, but other than the front glass — something you have on every smartphone — I don't see where it would have any durability issues. Try not to drop your phone and you'll be just fine.
Andrew Martonik: Though I still wouldn't go anywhere near calling the Galaxy S5 a "beautiful" device, I can say I think Samsung's going in the right direction. I have the black model which is particularly sleek, and the new soft-touch material on the back is a big improvement over the flimsy hard plastic of old. Sadly Samsung has stuck with the flashy, chrome-looking hard plastic around the sides and home button, which really cheapens the entire look of the device. It stands out for sure, but not in a good way.
The upside of all this plastic is durability. My Galaxy S5 has taken all of the same bumps and tumbles as any other phone I've had for a couple of months, and it seems to have come away no worse for the wear. The shiny plastic around the bezel shows some small wear and nicks, but nothing worth writing home about. I still think Samsung could strike a better balance between durability and style, though, and I think it's going to take a couple more iterations before it gets things right in that area.
Alex Dobie: All the various plastic Samsung phones I've used have held up pretty well, and the same goes for the Galaxy S5. It's been dropped once, though not from a great height, and the chassis looks more or less as it did on day one — no immediately noticeable signs of wear and tear. That said, the GS5 hasn't been my daily driver over the past two months. The only mark I've been able to spot on my unit is a small scratch on the home button, which appeared within the first couple of weeks of use, though this doesn't affect its functionality or that of the built-in fingerprint scanner.
As for the GS5's aesthetic qualities, it's still a fairly basic plastic smartphone, even with the improved soft-touch back on the black model I've been using. The all-metal HTC One M8 is easier on the eyes, while the plastic LG G3 feels more sturdy. And I don't think I'm alone in hoping to see Samsung, with its immense engineering talent and gazillions of dollars, try something a little more exotic when it comes to materials.
Richard Devine: Unlike some of my colleagues, I went for the non-soft touch white Galaxy S5 and on the whole it hasn't left me feeling disappointed. The previous Galaxy S phones have always put me off with their bargain basement feeling glossy backs but not so with the S5. I wouldn't say I consider it the best, but I'm happier with it than what came before.
I don't exactly treat my phones with kid gloves and the Galaxy S5 doesn't have a scratch on it.
It's stood up quite well, too. I don't exactly treat my phones with kid gloves and the Galaxy S5 has had a couple of falls from my desk, but there are no dings, no screen scratches, nothing. One thing I'm still not so sure about though is the charging port flap. I just can't help but feel like it's going to break off at some point.
I'd still like a blue back at some point, too.
Phil Nickinson: I somehow found myself in the minority on this one, but I liked the look and feel of the Galaxy S5 from the start. (You can hear it in my voice in the first few seconds of our hands-on from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.) When you think about it, there's really less plastic on the GS5 than on the previous iterations now that the back cover has gone soft-touch. And I can't stress enough how much better the blue color feels than the white or black.
And it's held up nicely — not that I had any concerns. In fact, because of the materials used I've got far fewer dings and scratches than on my metal phones.
Samsung's software experience
Even with hundreds of millions of TouchWiz phones out there, Samsung software still seems to be a point of loathing for many. Has the S5's Android flavor grown on you at all this time around?
Jerry: The new TouchWiz still isn't to my liking. It's too busy, too colorful, and too resource-intensive to me. That's not what I'm looking for in a smartphone. Having said that, I can see where Samsung is still busy improving the interface — and that's what counts. There are plenty of people who enjoy the kitchen-sink approach that Samsung uses, as evidenced by the sales figures. I also think Samsung is doing some very good things, and the latest TouchWiz make an excellent tablet operating system. Hopefully, they continue to listen to user feedback and refine things in the future.
I feel Samsung is moving in the right direction with software design, albeit at a dramatically slow pace.
Andrew: Much like the hardware situation, I feel as though Samsung is moving in the right direction with the software design, albeit at a dramatically slower pace. The Galaxy S5 sports fewer ridiculous features popping up everywhere, less noise and scaled-down animation intensity when compared to the GS4. Sadly it still suffers from a severe case of bloatware (and that's before the carriers get ahold of it) with several useless pre-installed apps (not to mention the annoyance of managing two app stores now), and the design is still eye-gouging bad by most accounts. The interface is covered with poor UI decisions and left-over cruft from previous versions of TouchWiz that you feel just won't ever go away at this point.
I understand that Samsung is in a rather tough position trying to move its software forward while it designs for dozens of different devices and an install base with tens of millions of current users, but at some point you have to just clean things up at a faster pace. Interfaces are moving forward to cleaner and simpler lines across the industry, and Samsung is getting left behind pretty notably, even with the noticeable improvements on the GS5.
Alex: TouchWiz has improved in that it now has a relatively coherent design language, something you couldn't really say about the multicolored hodgepodge found on the GS3 and GS4. My biggest problem with Samsung's UI — aside from that fact that it still can't match up to HTC or stock Android in terms of performance — has to do with personalization. It's very difficult to customize the GS5's stock launcher in a way that doesn't look weird and wrong. The selection of bundled wallpapers are hideous, and the use of a very specific color palette makes it difficult to match any nonstandard widget and background combination and have it look good alongside the rest of the UI.
Richard: I replaced the launcher, because honestly I really don't like the one Samsung goes with in Touchwiz. There's way too much wasted space for me and I don't really understand having a 4x4 grid on a 5.1-inch display.
Beyond that I'm perfectly happy. I like the flat, I like the choice of colors and I like some of the custom apps Samsung has available.
Phil: Absolutely. Samsung's coming along quite nicely in the software department, at least as far as the user experience is concerned. I still prefer another launcher — but that's as much about my workflow and what I'm used to as it is anything else. In a vacuum, Samsung has greatly improved over the years.
Samsung made a big deal about the fast focusing and ultra-fine image quality that the S5's camera was capable of, but it seems to come up short in low light. Is this a real worry, or something average users won't notice?
Jerry: Samsung needs to find a balance here. Many users aren't going to care about low-light image quality, but there are just as many who want pictures taken inside a restaurant or club to be better than Samsung is currently able to deliver from the Galaxy S5. I fall into the latter group, and find I'm not very satisfied with the camera on the Galaxy S5 — even though it can take some really nice pictures outside in the daytime. I took my S5 Active to Google I/O, and found the image quality from the camera to be pretty poor unless I was against the window.
Andrew: It's hard to overstate how well the Galaxy S5's camera performs during the day. Not only does it focus quickly and take crisp pictures, it does so instantaneously no matter the situation or shooting mode. Sadly that's only the case in bright daylight (where most any camera should perform well), and things quickly deteriorate when you get near sunset. The GS5 loses nearly all of its camera prowess in lower-light conditions, no matter what mode or settings you happen to use. There's no replacement for having a larger sensor and OIS, and Samsung should know that by now. Camera hardware and software has progressed to a point where low-light photography shouldn't be anywhere near as bad as it is on the Galaxy S5.
As impressive as the Galaxy S5 is with plenty of daylight, it really is god-awful in the dark.
Alex: I have a feeling I'm not alone in saying this, but as impressive as the Galaxy S5 is with plenty of daylight — and to be clear, I think the GS5 is the very best cameraphone available for shooting in daylight — it really is god-awful in the dark. Images are extremely noisy without software stabilization enabled; with stabilization turned on, the camera app take several seconds to take a shot, and even then photos often look blotchy and smudged, with Samsung's software processing obliterating any fine detail. Ultimately, it's a camera I can only use for half of the day if I care about the quality of my photos. That's a shame, because some features, like the GS5's excellent HDR mode, stand head and shoulders above what's offered by the competition.
Ironically the GS5's main Android competitor, the HTC One M8, is the exact opposite — great in low light, uninspiring in daylight. Both manufacturers seem to be offering only a fraction of a great overall camera experience, but if I'm paying top dollar for a high-end smartphone I expect the whole package. Don't give me one half and pretend the other doesn't matter.
Richard: It's a shame it falls to pieces as the light begins to disappear because when there's plenty about it's one of the best. As a rule of thumb I leave HDR on for everything and focusing is always plenty fast enough to catch shots in a hurry.
De-focus mode is almost as disappointing as taking pictures in low light.
De-focus mode is almost as disappointing as taking anything in low light. In my experience it fails to capture the desired effect more times that it actually succeeds. Thankfully, Google Camera is available for us to use in this situation. Overall the camera has been good, but it's not the complete package at all.
Phil: Something just feels … off about the camera. It's definitely above average when there's plenty of light, but it falls off so quickly as the light fades. Focusing tends to be fast enough for me.
I haven't felt the need to "de-focus" an image yet.
Scanning fingerprints and measuring heart rate
The Galaxy S5 introduced a few new gimmick-worthy features, including the fingerprint scanner and heart rate sensor. Are you taking advantage of those? Or do you use the GS5 just like any other phone?
Jerry: No, I'm not using them. I'm also not going to have features like a fingerprint scanner, heart rate sensor or face-tracking camera be the deciding factor in any smartphone purchase, because I'm never going to use them. They don't work as well as we want them to, and even if they did, they aren't features that fit into my use-case.
This doesn't mean I think Samsung should have omitted them. They are easy to ignore or turn off, use little to no resources when not in use, and there are people who will find them useful. As long as the software doesn't require these sorts of features as it progresses, I've no problem with them being there.
Andrew: It became painfully apparent to me after about three days of using the Galaxy S5 that the fingerprint scanner just isn't good enough to warrant using it on a daily basis. Whether it's because of the swipe-style scanner, the software implementation of reading the prints or a mixture of the two, the fingerprint scanner on the GS5 really isn't good. It's back to the drawing board on that one.
I tried to use the heart rate monitor at the gym, and it ends up being more hassle than it's worth.
The heart rate monitor on the back of the phone seems to be drastically more consistent and accurate in regular use than the fingerprint scanner on the front, but I don't see much daily use for it personally. Anyone who's intensely interested in health monitoring will likely be going for something more clinically-proven and accurate, while the rest of us who are just casually interested in knowing our heart rate won't be bothered to pick up our phones during a workout, stop moving, and wait for it to register. I tried really hard to use the heart rate monitor at the gym to monitor my body, and it ends up being more of a hassle than it's worth.
Alex: I've never felt the need to measure my heart rate using a smartphone, and I don't expect that to change anytime soon. If you need to keep track of that stuff for medical or fitness reasons, chances are you're already doing so with more specialized equipment.
As for the fingerprint scanner, its position makes it awkward to use one-handed, but it seems to work well enough. For that reason I think its greatest potential is as a stand-in for the multitude of passwords we find ourselves having to enter on our mobile devices, as opposed to lock screen security. That said, it's going to take some more effort on the part of Samsung and its partners to make this a reality.
Richard: Short answer, no. OK, there's a little more to it than that but the heart rate sensor has been used once, just to try it out. From that first use I decided it wasn't nearly accurate enough should I actually want to use it – heart rate of 182bpm while sitting on the couch, anyone? – and honestly, if I was into exercising and wanted to record my heart rate I'd buy a dedicated band.
I do use the fingerprint scanner, though. Not for unlocking the phone because it's just too awkward and I usually don't want to use two hands for that. I use PayPal an awful lot, however, and having my fingerprint as a way to access my account instead of going into mSecure and copying my password every time is so ridiculously convenient. It make me want the same on my laptop, tablets, every other phone I own. It's also been very reliable for me. It's not a secret I dual-wield with an iPhone as my other primary device and Samsung's scanner has been at least as reliable as Apple's Touch ID.
I have absolutely no desire to check my heart rate, let alone with my phone.
Phil: I get why these features are on the Galaxy S5, but I just don't use them at all. I tried the fingerprint scanner for a while but just couldn't get it to be consistent enough. And I have absolutely no desire to check my heart rate, let alone with my phone. That's a niche feature in a very prominent location. It was done with purpose, but that doesn't mean I'd learn to use it.
After two months with the Galaxy S5
Rounding up the thoughts from five Android Central editors on living with the Galaxy S5 for the past two months, we come away at nearly the same conclusion as we found in our initial review of the Samsung flagship. Samsung outdid itself in a real and noticeable way when it comes to hardware choices, interface design and a narrowing of vision to fewer features and gimmicks on the Galaxy S5. It's no stretch to say that this is the best-feeling and highest-performing Galaxy S device yet, and the sales numbers (and mind share) seem to back that up.
That doesn't mean the GS5 is without flaws, though. As we've seen in the responses here, many of Samsung's decisions with the GS5 are improvements over the last version but in many ways haven't gone far enough to win the hearts and minds of the Android Central editors in every respect. For all the improvements, the Galaxy S5 still makes use of oddly shiny and gaudy plastic, goes overboard with software flair that detracts from the overall experience and failed to execute properly on the two big hardware features — a heart rate monitor and fingerprint scanner — of this release.
It's always a good sign when our generally positive feelings about the Galaxy S5 have lasted over an extended period of use, and we can have several of us come to the same conclusions (more or less) on the quality of the hardware, software, camera and features. The fact that the Galaxy S5 doesn't continue to blow our minds a full two months after launch could be interpreted in several ways, to be fair, but it does show that the GS5 represents just as solid of a value — and can appeal to a broad number of potential buyers — today as it did back in April.