Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Fab Five

GSMArena team, 08 April 2014.

Unboxing the Galaxy S5

The Samsung Galaxy S5 comes in a retail box made out of recycled paper with a wood grain print and a big "5". The contents are the usual - a compact charger, microUSB cable and a one-piece headset. Note that the cable is microUSB 2.0 even though the phone supports 3.0.

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Unboxing the Galaxy S5

Samsung Galaxy S5 360-degree spin

In terms of footprint the Samsung Galaxy S5 (142x72.5mm) sits right between its two main rivals - the LG G2 (138.5x70.9mm) and the Sony Xperia Z2 (146.8x73.3mm). However, factor in the thickness - 8.1mm for the Samsung handset vs 8.2mm for the Sony and 8.9mm for the LG - and you realize that the Galaxy S5 is overall the most compact of the bunch. Those other two have slightly larger, 5.2" screens but virtual keys eat into the available space, while the latest Galaxy flagship has off-screen buttons.

In terms of weight, the Galaxy S5 with its 145g is basically identical to the G2 (143g) and notably lighter than the Xperia Z2 (163g). The Samsung engineers did a great job of utilizing the available space and produced the best balance between screen size and portability.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 sized up against the LG G2 and Galaxy Note 3

Design and build quality

To be honest, those first press images were less than overwhelming. We quite liked the faux leather rear on the Galaxy Note 3 and expected the Galaxy S5 to get a similar treatment.

Surprisingly, the latest Samsung flagship actually looks better than the phablet in person. The perforated back is stylish enough and, being the first of its kind, adds a bit of character that's quite important for a device hoping to be the best on the market.

Samsung has received a lot of criticism over the past few years for its unimaginative designs, but things have definitely been improving since the second half of last year and the Galaxy S5 is just another confirmation. The Koreans have even put a flap over the microUSB 3.0 port to mask the rather large hole, which would've spoiled the looks.

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The Samsung Galaxy S5 is certainly a looker

The build quality is great too - despite packing a removable back cover, the Samsung Galaxy S5 feel solid and gives away no worrying sounds when handled. And the IP67 certification hasn't resulted in overly plastic feel either, so we can give high marks here.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 in White

The only problem we have with the new design and choice of materials is that they don't quite provide the same great level of grip as the Galaxy Note 3. The Samsung Galaxy S5 is still reasonably comfortable to handle, but just feels a tad of more slippery than its phablet stablemate.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 in the hand

Controls

At first glance, the Samsung Galaxy S5's layout of controls isn't much different from what the Galaxy S4 offered. The now outdated context menu key has been replaced by a dedicated task switcher button on the left of the home key and that's about it.

However there is a trio of new major introductions that aim to become key selling points for the smartphone. The first one is the fingerprint sensor integrated into the home button just like on the iPhone 5s. Yet the manner of operation here is different and closer to the HTC One Max solution - you need to slide your finger over the key rather than just place it on top.

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The home key now accommodates a fingerprint scanner

We find Apple's implementation faster and more intuitive, although it did pose accuracy issues for some users, including members of our team, over time. The Galaxy S5 accuracy seems excellent at this point, although we haven't had enough time with it to judge its long-term performance.

Up to three fingers can be set up to use for unlocking or authorizing payments through the PayPal app. At launch you can only do that in 26 markets - those include US, UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Russia, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

You can also use the fingerprint with Samsung services, but support for authorizing payments through Google services is yet to be added.

A cool feature of the fingerprint sensor is the special private mode, which will let you protect content on your Galaxy S5, only making it available after fingerprint unlock. This means you can safely share your phone with friends, co-workers and kids without compromising potentially sensitive information.

The other major novelty in the Samsung Galaxy S5 is the heart-rate monitor, which is located right next to the LED flash at the back. To use it you should hold the phone as you would normally with one of the fingers resting over the sensor and keeping steady for a few seconds. It works well on most occasions, although it occasionally failed to read any pulse whatsoever (even though we don't remember hiring any undead editors).

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The rear-mounted pulse meter

The pulse meter is integrated with the S Health app and aims to help you keep a better track of your workouts and general physical condition. The thing is the location of the sensor and the fact that it requires you to keep perfectly still to work, means it's of hardly any use during your workouts and outside of that we didn't really have much incentive to use it.

Perhaps Samsung meant this as a way to promote the newly unveiled Gear lineup, which also packs heart rate monitors and works in a much more convenient way. On the Galaxy S5 however we didn't find it to be of much use.

The final upgrade the Samsung Galaxy S5 brings over its predecessor and its competitors is the microUSB 3.0 port. Samsung has been the only manufacturer to move to 3.0 for its recent flagships and this is the third device by the company to use it after the Note 3 phablet and the Note Pro 12.2 tablet. microUSB 3.0 brings faster data transfers while remaining backwards compatible, so you can still use your older cables when speed is of no object. There's the usual support for USB host and TV-out via MHL too.

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The microUSB 3.0 port is tucked underneath a small plastic flap

The obvious downside is that the new port is much larger, with more pins than the old one, and creates a gaping hole on the surface of the device. Samsung found a way around it by placing a protective cover over it, sacrificing some usability in the name of better looks. The fact that the smartphone had to maintain the IP67-certification for dust and water resistance also played its role in making that decision, we guess.

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Rubber isolation underneath the battery cover makes sure the internals aren't damaged by water

The rest of the controls are well familiar - above the display we have the earpiece, as well as a bunch of sensors. The traditional ambient light and proximity sensors are joined by an IR gesture sensor, which enables the Air gestures in applications such as the web browser and music player. There's also a 2.1 megapixel front-facing camera for video calls and a status LED up there.

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The familiar set of controls above the screen

The left side of the Samsung Galaxy S5 features the volume rocker, while the power/lock key is on the right. Unfortunately, despite the proper camera upgrade that the Galaxy S5 got, the new flagship is still missing a dedicated camera key. You can use the volume rocker for snapping photos, but it can't quite match a two-stage button.

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Once more we'll have to do without a dedicated camera key

The top of the Galaxy S5 features the 3.5mm audio jack, the secondary microphone and the IR blaster that lets the smartphone remotely control various home appliances. There's also a remote control app with a pretty rich database preinstalled, so the functionality is available right out of box.

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The secondary microphone and the IR blaster join the 3.5mm jack on top

The primary microphone is alongside the microUSB port at the bottom.

The back of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is where the 16MP 4K-capable camera lens is located. The camera module uses a new larger 16:9 sensor and one-of-a-kind hybrid focus featuring phase detection in addition to the usual contrast detection akin to what interchangeable lens compacts offer. We'll test its performance in detail later on.

The LED flash and the loudspeaker grille are the other things to note at the back.

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The redesigned back hosts the upgraded camera module and the loudspeaker grille

Removing the battery cover reveals the microSIM slot, the 2,800mAh removable battery and the hot-swappable microSD card slot.

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The two card slots are under the back cover

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