Samsung Galaxy S5 review

In the days leading up the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S5, the hype machine drove up expectations for the device tremendously.

Citing various sources, reports predicted that the Galaxy S5 would boast a significant change in design, including an aluminium body; a revamped user interface; and significant improvements to the hardware.

As has become all too commonplace in the rumour reporting (and re-reporting) ahead of the launch of a new smartphone, most of the predictions proved to be false (or, if the new rumours are to be believed, premature).

When the Samsung Galaxy S5 didn’t live up to the hype, the first, natural reaction was disappointment.

Just like the S4, or the iPhone 5s/5c, or the Sony Xperia Z2, it was merely an incremental improvement over its predecessor.

However, after a closer look there’s something to be said for iteration.

Design and build quality

Though the Galaxy S5 retained its plastic casing – which I maintain makes the device feel cheap – Samsung has done away with the smooth plastic back and replaced it with a textured back cover.

Another subtle change is that the Galaxy S5 is slightly heavier (145g vs 130g) than its predecessor. The little bit of extra heft makes it feel more substantial and less like a toy.

The cover still feels thin and flimsy when you peel it off, but this time it also serves a more important function than keeping the battery in. Traced on the inside of the cover is a waterproof membrane that helps provide the Galaxy S5 with its resistance to dust and water ingress.

Samsung Galaxy S5 goes for a swim while running 3DMark
Samsung Galaxy S5 goes for a swim while running 3DMark

 

Rated IP67, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is water resistant up to 1 meter for 30 minutes and dust proof.

For those worried about water damage to their phone (and who isn’t?), this is a fantastic feature.

You can’t go diving with it, and it can’t stand up to jets of water, but if if you get caught in the rain or dropped in the pool you don’t have to worry about your phone being destroyed. Provided the back and micro USB port covers are on tightly, of course.

While not the first high-end device to offer ingress protection (the Sony Xperia Z range are all rated IP58, making them waterproof and dust resistant), this is a development for the Samsung Galaxy S range. Previously, Samsung offered a separate incarnation in the range, called the Galaxy S4 Active, which featured an IP rating.

Samsung Galaxy S5 bottom front
Samsung Galaxy S5 bottom front

Hardware

Other than the IP67 rating, there isn’t much on the Galaxy S5’s spec sheet to write home about.

A small change that should make us Android purists happy is that Samsung has finally decided to ditch capacitive hardware menu button in favour of the “Recents” button.

This means that the Samsung Galaxy S5 still gives hardware buttons to those that prefer them, but just offers them in the modern Android paradigm now.

Beside the button change, the Galaxy S5 has a slightly bigger screen than the S4 (5.1-inch vs 5-inch), slightly faster processor, slightly bigger battery, and some extra pixels of resolution on the camera.

Yes, it also has a fingerprint scanner and heart rate monitor, but those are little more than gimmicks that seem at odds with the “designed for what matters most to consumers” and “innovation of essential features for day-to-day use” marketing narrative woven by Samsung.

Considering how quickly security researchers said they were able to “hack” the fingerprint scanner (by fooling it with a replica finger), it is a downright dangerous gimmick at that.

Unlike the iPhone 5s (which also has a fingerprint sensor), the Galaxy S5 includes an API that essentially lets applications use your fingerprints instead of a password. PayPal was the first application to use this new feature, so it made sense that it was included in the proof-of-concept “hack”.

Using a replica finger – which the researchers said they could mould by lifting someone’s fingerprints off a suitable surface, such as a smartphone screen – they were able to authorise payments with PayPal.

It is therefore ill-advised to use the Galaxy S5’s (or any other) fingerprint scanner instead of a strong password.

Benchmarks

Samsung Galaxy S5 benchmarks
Benchmark Scores GFXBench Scores
AnTuTu 38006 Manhattan 243
Vellamo 1080p Manhattan Offscreen 543
Vellamo HTML5 1905 T-Rex 1494
Vellamo Metal 1225 1080p T-Rex Offscreen 1499
Vellamo Advanced video 161 ALU 1413
Vellamo Octane 5409 1080p ALU offscreen 2838
3DMark Alpha Blending 3325
3DMark Ice Storm Extreme 9694 1080p Alpha Blending offscreen 2742
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited 13150 Driver Overhead 1069
3DMark Ice Storm “Maxed out” 1080p Driver Overhead Offscreen 2085
Fill 2114
1080p Fill offscreen 2113
Render Quality 3292
Render Quality (high precision) 4043

We received the 3G version of the Samsung Galaxy S5 for review, which is the model that uses Samsung’s own Exynos 5 Octa-Core processor.

According to Samsung South Africa, this is the model of the device available through Cell C, Telkom Mobile, and other retail channels.

Vodacom and MTN offer the LTE-capable version of the Galaxy S5, which is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, similar to the HTC One M8 and Sony Xperia Z2.

Where last year’s Octa-Core Samsung Galaxy S4 clocked in at speeds of 1.6GHz for the first four cores and 1.2Ghz for the last four cores, the Exynos-powered Galaxy S5’s processor runs at 2.1GHz and 1.5GHz.

As might be expected, the effects of this increase in clock rate does show up in benchmarks.

Though the title for best Android benchmark performance changes frequently, for the moment, the crown belongs to the Galaxy S5.

It’s somewhat academic (and smartphone manufacturers have previously fudged their software to boost results), but benchmarks do give some idea of how phones should perform relative to one another.

Software

New Samsung smartphone UI being "explored", according to @evleaks
New Samsung smartphone UI that was being “explored”, as leaked by @evleaks

Another aspect of the device where the hype promised big changes – which reality failed to deliver – is the user interface.

“Leaked” screenshots and Samsung’s own teasers stirred speculation that the venerable TouchWiz “skin” for Android would be getting a much-needed facelift.

In the end, the changes came mainly to the settings screen. The list of menu items with colourful images is replaced by a somewhat more tasteful grid of round icons.

As pretty as the grid is, it is a massive departure from Android’s default settings screen, making it difficult for those coming from other manufacturers to find their way around, initially.

Features introduced with the Galaxy Note 3 such as the additional home screen that can provide a personalised content stream also made its way to the S5.

As with the S4, there is perceptible latency between pushing the home button and the device responding by taking you to your home screen.

If this irritates you as much as it did me, it can be mostly mitigated by switching off the “double press home” shortcut in the settings for S Voice, Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Siri.

Samsung Galaxy S5 user interface screenshots
Samsung Galaxy S5 user interface screenshots

Software freebies

Like with many other manufacturers, the phone’s operating system and customisations are only part of the Galaxy S5’s software story.

Called “Galaxy Gifts”, the S5 comes with a number of freebies from third-party app developers that typically give you a taste of their premium services.

This includes free cloud storage from Dropbox (50GB for 2 years), Box (50GB for 6 months), and Bitcasa (1TB for 3 months); access to LinkedIn’s paid-for features for 3 months; and Evernote’s premium service for 3 months.

Specific to the South African market, Galaxy S5 owners receive 6 months free access to nMusic, a music streaming service that looks to take on Simfy, Deezer, Rara, and Rdio, locally.

The new DStv BoxOffice movie rental app for Android is also exclusive to the Samsung Galaxy S5 for now.

These apps help shore up some of the deficiencies in Google’s support for the Android ecosystem in South Africa.

While we do have access to apps, games, and books, Android’s music and movie marketplaces are not yet available on South Africa.

Battery

Samsung Galaxy S5 ultra low power mode
Samsung Galaxy S5 ultra low power mode

A great feature Samsung has launched with the Samsung Galaxy S5 is its “Ultra Power Saving Mode” (UPSM).

When you enable this mode, the device screen is switched to grey-scale and you receive access to a limited number of features (you can choose to pin 6 apps to the UPSM menu).

Of the applications installed on the device for testing, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google+, ChatOn, and the web browser could be accessed in Ultra Power Saving Mode. The phone, SMS, calculator, clock, Memo, and voice recorder features are also available.

According to Samsung, Ultra Power Saving Mode gives you an additional 24 hours of standby time for every 5% of charge remaining on the battery.

These claims were difficult to verify precisely, but UPSM certainly seemed to extend standby time and looks like it could be handy in a pinch.

Outside of UPSM, the Galaxy S5’s battery lasted the standard “day-or-so” as has become the norm for the modern smartphone.

Samsung Galaxy S5 rear cover open with battery removed
Samsung Galaxy S5 rear cover open with battery removed

 

Samsung ADH Premium warranty

Arguably the killer feature of Samsung’s high-end products in South Africa is its “accidental damage from handling” (ADH) warranties.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 gets ADH Premium, which includes some additional benefits over the original ADH warranty that launched with the Galaxy S4.

ADH Premium first shipped with the Galaxy Note 3 and originally offered two free replacements if your screen cracked or you dropped your device in water.

Even though this has since been scaled back to offer 2 free repairs with a loan unit rather than replacements, it is still a great (and unique) deal.

The terms are as follows:

  • 2 free screen or liquid damage repairs. If a device has sustained liquid damage and its display is cracked, it counts as two repairs.
  • Samsung said it will collect your broken device and deliver it when its repaired.
  • It also promises to provide a loan unit while your device is being repaired.

ADH Premium also includes a feature Samsung calls “Smart Value”, which offers guaranteed future buyback within the first 12 months of ownership. Samsung said it will pay 25% of the recommended retail price at the time of purchase.

If you trade in a device under Smart Value for another Samsung device covered by ADH Premium, any unused repairs carry over to the new term.

Samsung Galaxy S5 angle top right front
Samsung Galaxy S5 angle top right front

Give it to me straight, Jim

All things considered, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is a fine device.

It may not have brought the revolution the rumours promised, but it has done enough right to be a worthwhile upgrade for Samsung Galaxy S3 users that enjoyed their device.

It also offers some of the best value among the high-end smartphone options in South Africa.

Even if the free premium access to services like Dropbox for a limited period doesn’t appeal, the ADH Premium warranty is difficult to argue against.

If you like TouchWiz (or don’t mind replacing it with a third-party launcher) and if you’re fine with the Galaxy S5’s plastic shell, then it’s certainly worth considering for your next upgrade.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 review