Just as HTC’s and Sony’s recent flagships have been only incremental improvements over their predecessors, with updated specs and slightly refined designs, the S5 is also a modest step up from the Galaxy S4.
The changes in design are a mixed success. It’s plastic as always, and we cannot say we’re fans of the larger bezel around the display.
The much maligned glossy backplate has made way for a new textured one. It’s an improved of sorts, though less appealing than the faux leather on the Note 3, and still not the kind of thing you’d expect to see on something that costs over £500. Of course the major benefit is that the back cover can be removed, so you can swap in an extra battery should you need to.
The big design change is that the S5 is now water and dust proof. This protection has been added very subtly apart a large flap that covers the USB port on the bottom. When you close this flap a warning pops up on screen reminding you to check that it is sealed properly. This is no doubt necessary but not entirely reassuring.
The rest of the phone is much the same as the previous two generations. It is curved, large yet slim and feels okay in the hand. The big home button remains below the screen, flanked by two capacitive buttons. The left of these is now the task switcher rather the menu (a long press will still serve as a menu button), and the right is the back button.
The screen is as stunning as we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s high end phones. It’s still 1080p, as was the S4. The other specs include a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked at 2.5GHz, with 2GB RAM and a choice of either 16 or 32GB of storage.
Samsung always used to go out of its way to out-spec its rivals, but in the current generation there’s very little to choose between them. Not to say that this is a problem – there’s more than enough power here to deliver smooth and responsive performance.
The phone runs Android 4.4.2 with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI on top. This has received its own polish, with a new flat design that feels fresher and more modern. It still presents an inconsistent experience, however, such as when you find a screen with tabs and assume you’ll be able to swipe between them as you can throughout the rest of Android (and most of its apps), only to find you can’t.
It’s also still way too cluttered. We don’t mind the mass of options that Samsung packs into its software, it’s the lack of hierarchy that makes it complicated to use. The most important options should be up front and centre and the more niche only there should you ever need them.
In TouchWiz everything is given equal weighting. The Quick Settings panel has 22 options, including icons for things like Smart Pause and Touch Sensitivity that we’re certain no-one will ever tap. Similarly the camera Settings presents you with a grid of 16 icons. Finding the one you want is far more difficult than it should be.
The camera otherwise is one area that is much improved. With a 16 megapixel sensor (and a larger sensor than you’ll get in the HTC One (M8)), it takes great shots in good light and good ones in poor light. It focusses fast and has minimal shutter lag, and is probably Android’s best camera right now.
The other brand new features in the S5 are a fingerprint sensor that not only unlocks the device but also ties into PayPal for online payments. It requires a swipe of the home button rather than a press as seen on the iPhone 5S, and doesn’t work very well. It is difficult to use one-handed, and we were rarely able to get it to work first time.
There’s also enhanced health and fitness features, including a heart rate monitor. This is a small sensor beneath the camera lens that will give you a heart rate reading when you hold your finger on it. It seemed to work, but is a very niche function.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade on the S5 is to battery life. It will get you through a day of heavy use, and potentially pushing into a third day with light use. The ultra power saving mode effectively turns the device into a feature phone and ensures that even when the charge drops below 10% you’ll still have enough juice to make or receive an important call.
It’s fair to say the S5 is not the most exciting upgrade we’ve ever seen, but it still ranks among the best Android phones on the market. It is less gimmicky than the S4 was, and has been refined and polished in important areas.
If you’re half way through a contract with the S4 there’s no urgent need to upgrade, but if you’re coming from an S III then buying the S5 is a no brainer.