The S5 is the 5th in a line of highly successful high-end smartphones from Samsung. It looks a lot like the S4 (so much so that unless you took a close look you couldn't tell them apart upon first glance). It improves upon the S4 in a number of important ways, but overall it is just an evolutionary step in the Galaxy lineup.
I was able to compare the RF performance of the S5 against both the HTC One M8 (on Telus) and against my S4 (on Rogers), because Howard Chui had unlocked the S5 as soon as he got it. However, there really is nothing to report here. Down in my basement (where LTE service is quite weak on both Rogers and Bell/Telus) I saw identical RSRP (signal strength) and RSRQ (signal quality) on each pairing (M8 vs S5 on Telus and S4 vs S5 on Rogers). Not surprisingly, the speed tests produced nearly identical results.
As I've said countless times, this comes as NO SURPRISE since all three of these phones uses a Qualcomm chipset, and thus has no hardware advantage over the others. It appears that antenna design has reached its zenith as well.
I'd expected a 3-way tie in this test as well, but surprisingly the S5 managed to beat both the S4 and M8, both of which performed very similarly to one another. For this test I took my TP-Link 802.11N router upstairs and I wrapped it in tin foil to reduce the effective signal downstairs in my basement. All three phones had to deal with the same conditions.
Up close to the router, all three phones could pull down data at around 45 Mbps, which is actually a bit slower than the 55 to 60 Mbps I can see when I test speeds on a wired computer. This probably represents the speed limit of my TP-Link router (it's a cheap model). It also serves a baseline for the tests. In my basement with the artificially-weakened signal the S4 and M8 could do no better than 10 to 12 Mbps. On the other hand, the S5 consistently pulled down 20 Mbps, even when I moved each phone around to get an optimal signal. There seems no question that the WiFi chipset and/or antenna in the S5 is superior to the S4 and M8.
During phone calls (either cellular or VoIP) the overall sound quality and maximum volume of the earpiece on the S5 is virtually identical to that of the S4. Chances are they've used exactly the same speaker and audio drivers. In speakerphone mode the S5 is somewhat louder than the S4, but on my test unit I heard sympathetic vibrations in the casing that weren't present on the S4. I had to turn the volume down quite a bit to get rid of them.
Outgoing sound quality (especially on a VoIP call) was almost identical to that of the S4, with a rich tonal quality. Once again however, it was almost impossible to tell the S5 from the S4.
The sound from the single built-in speaker on the back of the S5 differs little from the S4, though it may be a tad louder, and just a little bit tinnier. However, the speakers are probably the same in both devices and you'd have to compare them side-by-side to hear any difference at all.
In keeping with Samsung's design philosophy, the screen of the S5 is once again Super AMOLED. In the past the big complaint about Super AMOLED vs LCD was that a top-notch AMOLED screen just didn't get as bright as a top-notch LCD panel. If you turned a Galaxy S4 up to fill brightness and set it down beside an HTC One M8 at full brightness that difference was fairly obvious. However, when you put an S5 down next to the same M8 you don't see any difference in brightness at all.
Another issue often brought up concerning AMOLED vs LCD was that AMOLEDs weren't as "white" as their LCD counterparts, but that too is not the case with the S5. In fact, the S5 has a slightly higher color temperature and it makes the M8 look a tiny bit yellow by comparison. However, this only underscores something I've been saying in virtually every review I've written in the last year; color temperature only matters when you compare it side-by-side without another phone with a different color temperature. However, if you subscribe to the idea that this actually matters, then the S5 not only matches the brightness of the M8, it trumps it for "whiteness".
The screen size is bumped up ever so slightly from 5.0 inches on the S4 to 5.1 inches on the S5. This change in screen size is virtually undetectable, even with the phones side-by-side. However, I doubt the screen size was increased solely as a marketing gimmick. The bezel on the new phone seems wider than the on the S4, which suggests that the phone's size was increased to accommodate more circuitry and the slightly larger battery. It only made sense to increase the screen size too, though they could have gone much large. After all, the LG G2 has a 5.2-inch screen in a device that was barely larger than the S4.
Contrary to rumors that had been circulating prior to the official release of the S5, it DOES NOT have 2K screen resolution (2560 x 1440). Instead it retains the same 1920 x 1080 resolution of the S4. Maximum screen brightness and color temperature aside, it's difficult to tell the difference between the S4 and S5 screens. They both look gorgeous.
Processor and Chipset
The S5 comes with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 clocked at 2.5 GHz, mated to the Adreno 330 GPU. This is essentially the same setup as all the other current top-end phones, but with a slightly faster clock rate (most of the others offer just 2.3 GHz, though you'd be hard-pressed to really notice the difference).
The 801 offers a secondary low-power processor that can continuously monitor various inputs without putting much of a strain on the battery. However, I wasn't able to find any feature that made use of this secondary processor. The HTC One M8 supports the ability to wake the phone up by swiping the screen. The Motorola X is always listening and you can say "Okay Google Now" to it at any time.
Like all Samsung smartphones the S5 had support for a MicroSD card. If you pull the back cover you'd be excused for thinking it did not have one, but they've done a really nice job of combining the SIM slot and the MicroSD slot into one. The MicroSD sits atop the SIM, but a thin metal divider ensures they don't interfere with one another.
The S5 is the first phone I've tested that has a USB 3.0 slot at the bottom. It's backward-compatible with USB 2.0, so you can use all of your existing charges and USB 2.0 cables. If your computer has USB 3.0 however, you'll really want to make use of it, because it allows for super-fast transfers. I don't have USB 3.0 on any of my computers, and so I couldn't test that.
The camera is an upgrade from the one found on the S4. It supports the same vertical resolution (approximately 3000 pixels), but it's a 16:9 sensor instead of a 4:3 sensor. That gives it 16 megapixels in 16:9 mode vs just 10 megapixels for the S4 in 16:9. If you still like to take 4:3 pictures however, there is NO SIZE ADVANTAGE at all. In fact, the 4:3 pictures from the S5 are slightly smaller than those from the S4. I personally moved to taking 16:9 pictures when I got my smart TV. I now view all photographs on it instead of my computer and it made sense to go 16:9. Clearly Samsung believes that 16:9 is the future of photography.
In terms of overall picture quality however, I couldn't really tell much difference between the S5 sensor and the S4 sensor. Low-light sensitivity is about the same, noise levels are approximately equal, and overall quality in bright light seems exactly the same. This strongly suggests that it is the SAME SENSOR technology that was used in the S4, just expanded physically to 16:9. However, the new sensor does include super-fast focusing.
The big difference between the S4 and S5 is the camera software. The newest version includes various tweaks to the user interface and adds a bunch of new features (while removing some of the less useful ones found in the S4). One of the handiest features of the new camera software is the ability to see a preview of an HDR shot before you take it. The S4 (and virtually ever other smartphone that even has an HDR mode) can only show a non-HDR preview, and you had to wait until you'd taken the shot to see how it turned out.
As with most of the new Snapdragon 800/801 phones, the S5 offers video recording in 4K resolution. Videos recorded in 1080p are supposed to be 60 frames per second instead of 30 frames per second. However, I checked the frame rate using the "Media Information" window in VLC Player and it told me the video I'd just shot with the S5 was only 30 FPS. That was born out by file size, which was virtually identical to a video I'd shot at the same time on my S4. A video I'd shot with the LG Flex really was a 60 FPS video according to VLC Player. In addition, I could detect no increase in smoothness between the S4 video and the S5 video.
Throughout my many reviews I've often complained that other manufacturers don't use GPS chipsets as advanced as those used by Samsung. No phone has managed to even match the performance of the GPS in the S4, let along best it. Well, not until the S5 came along that is. Not only is the performance of the S5's GPS a match for the S4's, but it takes the next logical step and adds support for the Chinese satellites. The S5 can (and does) lock into every GPS, Glonass, and Chinese positioning satellite in view (though for now it only seems to see 1 Chinese satellite, though occasionally I did seen 2 or 3 at the same time). This should give the S5 a slight advantage over even an S4 when the device is used in the canyons of a downtown core.
It is therefore not a stretch to say that the Galaxy S5 has THE MOST ADVANCED GPS chipset of all the phones I've thus far tested. It is clearly better than the one in the HTC One M8, and literally blows away the LG G2.
Samsung has decided to stop making separate "normal" and waterproof versions of the phone, as was the case with the S4. The S5 is waterproof to a depth of 1 meter. This doesn't mean you should take it swimming with you, but it can withstand a drop in the toilet without potential water damage. However, the price you pay for having a waterproof phone is a super-annoying cover over the USB port. Not only is it a pain to have to move it out of the way each time you want to plug in a cable, but it makes the phone incompatible with docks that work fine with the S4 (and just about any phone with a USB port on the bottom). If the waterproof feature isn't that important to you, I'm sure you could remove the port cover (at risk of voiding your warrantee).
Following Apple's lead, Samsung has endowed the S5 with a fingerprint scanner so that you can unlock your phone without having to type in a password or swipe-out a pattern. However, they didn't go with a scanner that works as well as the iPhone's, nor can you use it when the phone is asleep. You still need to power up the screen before the scanner is activated. To use the scanner you can't just place your finger on the button as you can with the iPhone, you must swipe downwards across the button like you do with laptop fingerprint readers. So, this feature is a step in the right direction, but Samsung could have done so much better.
The phone includes a heart rate sensor, which is located next to the flash on the back of the phone. It makes sense to include this in a smartwatch, where the device is strapped to you all of the time, but putting on the back like this seems like a gimmick at best.
Samsung has opted to stick with off-screen buttons (which is a wise move in my opinion, but your personal feelings on this may differ). However, they've opted to trade out the menu button on the left for a last-used-apps button. This change moves closer to the norm that Google is trying to promote, and for the most part you don't miss the menu key since apps now have 3-dot menu buttons in them. However, when running older apps that do not have an action bar, and therefore no 3-dot menu, you can press-and-hold the left softkey to get the old menu functionality, so all is not lost.
While the HTC One M8 now has on-screen menu keys, the S5 continues Samsung's tradition of using separate ones.
One advantage to this is that it frees up more screen space.
The Galaxy S5 is a fitting successor to the S4, but it's only an evolutionary change, and not a particularly big one at that. If you already own an S4 you probably won't want to waste the money buying an S5, unless you desperately need USB 3.0, somewhat improved camera software, a fingerprint reader, or a brighter screen. If you presently own an S3 however, your contract is probably close to completion and the improvements between the S3 and S5 are well worth the jump.
Compared to other high-end smartphones on the market the S5 comes with similar specs (though clocked just a little faster). There really isn't much to say about the S5 that would help you pick between it and the competition, except for nitpicks regarding the quality of the GPS, or your love of (or hatred of) TouchWiz.
- Incredible screen
- Excellent WiFi
- Fast 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 processor
- Best GPS out there
- Fingerprint scanner
- Annoying USB door
- So-so multimedia speaker
- Fingerprint scanner not as good as Apple's
- No always-listening features (despite use of Snapdragon 801)
- Average battery life