Late last week I met two Samsung executives in a North Shore café to get a briefing on the Galaxy S5 smartphone and to collect a review model for a temporary loan. That’s business as normal in my line of work.
However, when the barista brought our coffees to the table, he seemed excited by the sight of the Galaxy S5. I could see he wanted to pick it up, play with the phone and chat to the Samsung blokes.
Now that is unusual. Until now only Apple products got that kind of enthusiasm.
It bodes well for Samsung and underlines the company’s position as the first, possibly the only, serious challenger to Apple’s smartphone leadership.
Galaxy back on track
After a day or so of testing I can report the barista was on to something, my first impression is that the Galaxy S5 gets Samsung back on track.
That might seem a strange thing to say. Samsung accounts for half of all Android phones and sells more smartphones than anyone else. The Galaxy S4 was the all-time fastest selling Android phone.
Despite this Samsung dropped the ball when it launched the Galaxy S4 last year.
While the Galaxy S4 is a fine phone, it doesn’t offer much more that’s worthwhile than the earlier S3 — certainly not enough to make it an essential upgrade.
The list of new features was certainly long enough, but almost all were gimmicky and unimpressive. In the end, it felt like Samsung loaded the phone with too much extra software.
Samsung made matters worse. The company hyped expectations before the launch and spent a fortune on a ridiculous, cringe-worthy event.
Galaxy S5 is a real upgrade
This time the company has things right. While it is still mainly a second incremental step up from the S3, the Galaxy S5 has enough compelling new features to tempt existing customers to upgrade and possibly enough to win over new fans from rival phone makers. A lot of reviewers are excited by the heartbeat sensor, I’m sorry, for me that counts as a gimmick. There’s also an Apple-like fingerprint scanner, which is a good thing in theory, but I’m struggling to make that work at the moment so I’ll reserve judgement.
Otherwise here’s a list of what I liked when I first tried the phone:
Ultra power saving mode
Dumb phones can run all week on the smell of a limp battery. Smartphones struggle to make it through a day, especially if they are in constant use. Samsung added a new mode that switches the display to monochrome, turns off all the power-sucking apps and winds battery consumption down to a trickle.
Samsung told me the phone should last for over a week in this mode. That’s ideal for emergencies or when you’re in danger of running out of juice but need to stay available.
Based on my experience with the power-sipping MacBook Air computer, I’d say this feature alone is enough to make me consider a Galaxy S5. It may not look flashy, but it’s a great step forward.
I’m a journalist. I like to take pictures at news events. I don’t want to carry a separate camera, so smartphone photography is important to me.
The Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel camera which is more resolution than I need. For me the more interesting new camera feature is its speed, Samsung says it now takes just 0.3 seconds to autofocus. I can’t confirm the time, I can confirm it works faster than earlier Samsung Galaxy phones.
I’m also impressed by the High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature that improved pictures taken in poor light conditions. This is something normally found on expensive digital cameras and, possibly, another compelling reason to choose the S5.
The word ‘possibly’ appears in that last sentence because I’ve found phones with Optical Image Stabilisation do a better job. It’s odd given how much Samsung has packed into the S5 that it left this one out.
Phones don’t generally like water. The Galaxy S5 is certified waterproof. This means you can hold it in a metre of water for 30 minutes. Or more to the point it will survive a dunking in the toilet, bath, washtub or local river.
I’ve never dropped a phone in water before now, but I have lived in fear of it happening. It’s comforting to know I can relax on that front.
Although I’m not a fan of the plastic back on the S5 body, it has a much nicer feel than the shell on the S4. The back is covered with small holes making it easier to grip. Plastic also makes for a lightweight phone.
I love the big bright screen. I find the iPhone 5S is a tad too small for reading text while the larger Galaxy S5 display is much easier to manage. Samsung uses almost all the front of the phone for the display, the bevel around the edge is only a few millimetres. This means you get the maximum screen for the minimum bulk.
Software needs work
Like many other Android phone makers, Samsung does its utmost to put its own stamp on Android. For me the TouchWiz software is the number one reason not to choose the S5. TouchWiz is still ugly, bloated and inefficient. It chews tons of resources, gobbles memory and slows the phone down.
Android may be the most popular smartphone operating system but that doesn’t make it good. Samsung thinks it can improve it with an overlay. I disagree. I prefer stock Android. I realise not everyone agrees with me.
Apparently, it is possible to use something called the Google Experience Launcher to fix this. Samsung will hate me for telling you this, but if you want to see just how nice the S5 can be, it’s worth a try.
Galaxy S5 overall
The Galaxy S5 is a fine phone from a first-rate company. Although it doesn’t look too different from the S4, there are some genuine improvements this time around. If you’re an Android fan, this could be the ‘droid you are looking for.
Samsung tells me the phone will be on sale with all three mobile carriers in April and that the price will be around the $1050 mark. That’s a lot to spend each year on a new phone, but if you like Samsung and skipped the S4, this would be a good choice.