That said, year after year, Samsung has failed to bring out something that wows where the rest of the competition has seen this as a key battleground.
HTC is the frontrunner here with the metal unibody design of the One M8, and Apple has maintained its position at the sharp end of design ever since the launch of the iPhone 4 – and has jumped forward again with the iPhone 6.
Sony’s efforts with its Z range have culminated in the industrially-designed Xperia Z3 and even Nokia has been toying with aluminium to make things feel a little more premium.
All of this makes me curious: why is Samsung refusing to give the consumers what they want… namely, a metal chassis?
There are a few possible reasons: cost of manufacture could be too high, especially at the volume Samsung spits them out at, Samsung likes to keep things lighter, waterproofing with a metal shell could have been trickier.
However, none of these arguments really holds water, given Apple does the same with a metallic phone, balanced handsets are better than lighter ones and Sony’s Xperia Z range has combined metal and water without a problem.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a more solid phone than the Galaxy S4, that’s for sure, and looks more well-packaged thanks to the wider back and the grippier, pock-marked battery cover.
However, it doesn’t look like a cutting edge smartphone. It seems more akin to the product of a Galaxy Note 3 and the S4, with the metal-effect band around the outside subconsciously making me search for an S Pen.
With the larger screen on board, Samsung’s still managed to keep things well in proportion. Although the chassis is larger, it’s not unmanageably so, although if you’re coming from an older iPhone, you might find it a little tricky to move up.
Those that have previously been fans of the Samsung Galaxy range before will find a lot to like here though. The home button – which now houses the fingerprint scanner, remember – is solid and easy to press, and the power key remains on the right-hand side of the phone, raised slightly and very easy to hit.
The same can be said of the volume key on the right, although as the handset has increased in height I found it a little harder to get to this area when I wanted to change the level on music when walking along.
One of the key changes to the Galaxy S5 is the fact that it’s now water-resistant, with IP67 rating meaning you can dunk it water for a short while, although going swimming with it isn’t advised.
It’s also dust resistant too, which makes the uncovered headphone port all the more impressive as it makes the S5 much easier to use without having to pull open a flap to listen to some tunes.
The USB 3.0 connection – which will look odd to some, but is the same used in the Galaxy Note 3 to give more power quickly while still allowing standard microUSB cables to be used – is covered to facilitate this IP rating, and it’s a little stiff to get off.
The groove to get your nail in to open it is quite small, and might be the only thing that irks those looking to get their hands on the best Galaxy phone and don’t care much about it being waterproof.
The capacitive buttons still flank the home key as before, but are slightly different now. Gone is the menu key, replaced by the multi-tasking button that seems to be Google’s new favourite in Android 4.4.
You can still use this as the menu key with a long press, but it doesn’t work intuitively and the distance from the right-hand side, where the right-handed will predominantly have their digits, is a little too far.
It’s not a bad system though, and the presence of a physical home button, while less necessary than before, still provides welcome tactility.
The other big design win Samsung still maintains with the Galaxy S5 is a removable battery. This is mostly for peace of mind nowadays, given that the battery life is so good on the S5, but if you’re worried about failure then this is a good option.
It also means the ugly FCC regulation stamp can be hidden from view, and you won’t need a SIM tool to get your card out – plus it’s easier to pop in a microSD card too.
The cover does give me slight cause for concern when you consider it from a water-resistant point of view, as it can be hard to make sure all the clips are securely fastened when snapping it back on.
A warning message does come up on the screen to remind you of this, but it can take a couple of passes to make sure it’s completely fixed on.
If you look under the battery cover, you’ll see that the battery is protected by a tight ring of rubber – if you’ve just dunked it in water, it’s a little disconcerting to see how much fluid is in the phone already… but this seems to be fine.
I did worryingly notice some grit got into the home key, but after an hour or two it seemed to dislodge itself, although it doesn’t make me think this phone is really that dustproof.
Overall, the design of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is likely to be the area that receives the most criticism, and for good reason.
It doesn’t command a premium feel in the hand like so many other high-end phones on the market, and while some will point to how strong and high-quality the polycarbonate used is, it still pales in comparison to the competition.
Yes, it’s lighter and probably more hard-wearing (you’re much less likely to need a case with the Galaxy S5, for instance) but this is the biggest pain point for Samsung and it’s one that it needs to improve with the Galaxy S6.
Last year it was quite tricky to talk about all the new elements that the Galaxy S4 offered, as most brought very little to the table other than technological gimmicks.
Things like Air Browse are still there, quietly nestled in the settings, and it’s to Samsung’s credit that it hasn’t just removed them completely.
With the Galaxy S5 though the effort is more on making the phone more usable, more in keeping with what consumers actually need day to day – so let’s see if the new features actually offer enough:
One of the most obvious things about the Samsung Galaxy S5 is the heart rate monitor stuck on the back under the camera.
It’s designed to be something that allows you to get the most out of your day to day activity by moving forward into the ‘quantified self’ – namely, seeing all the data on your daily activities.
S Health 3.0 is a good upgrade, and fills in a lot of the blanks that a lot of other apps miss. You can get better apps for each element that S Health offers – for instance, My Calorie Counter does a better job of managing your calorie intake – but for convenience with one central app, this is a pretty good offering.
The pedometer is, like on most phones, largely useless as it gives you an arbitrary number of steps to follow each day, which you can only hit if you’re going to glue the Galaxy S5 to your thigh.
It’s also not as accurate as something that’s wrist or shoe based, and given Samsung has put a lot of effort into the Gear wearables, this seems to be something that’s more novelty than helpful.
You can track exercise from the phone better though, which is a neat feature as it adds that data into the centralised pot. Again, there are much better apps out there for tracking your runs – Adidas MiCoach, Runkeeper or Endomondo are nice alternatives – but this is a good place to start for the novice runner, albeit without much structure on the kind of runs to aim for.
The big hitter for S Health this year on the Galaxy S5 is the new heart rate monitor on the back of the phone, just under the camera and giving you easy access to your pulse rate whenever you fancy it.
But that’s the thing: why would you fancy it? It’s one of those elements that seem to be there for the sake of it, like Samsung was trying to think about what it could add into the S5 mix to make it seem shiny and new.
And, to its credit, it mostly works. It’s nowhere near as robust as something that’s wrist or chest based (I found that it couldn’t find my pulse one in every three or four tries) and there’s also the issue of when you’d use it.
Ideally, you’d remember to take your pulse the second you wake up, when you’re relaxed and able to easily access your resting heart rate.
And maybe at key points of exertion throughout the day would be helpful too, so you can track your increasing fitness over time, assuming you’re using the app properly.
But it’s really had to remember to perform this action at the right times, meaning your average can be largely skewed depending on what you’re doing each day.
Someone I know is currently recovering from heart failure, so I asked her how she felt about having such a function She said that for those that need to take a heart rate throughout the day, or just to check if it’s gone up from exertion, it’s a really handy thing to have (although this isn’t exact enough for medical readings).
So S Health is a great app for those that have a medical condition and require non-exact read outs (the monitor on the Galaxy S5 isn’t intended to replace proper medical equipment) but for those that don’t have such a condition I can see this quickly falling into the ‘show people at the pub and see who has the lowest heart rate’ category.
Ultra Power Saving Mode
Samsung, like many of the other big phone manufacturers, is going hard on the notion of making it easier to get your phone battery to last when things are getting a bit critical towards the end of the day.
As you’ll see in the battery section, the Galaxy S5 is an excellent choice if you want to spend some time away from the charger every so often, but this new tool allows you to feel more secure when things are getting dicey.
It works by activating when you decide to turn it on, rather than at a pre-defined level. The screen will go black and white, the power will ramp down massively and the apps you’re able to use are limited to just six that you choose.
The selection isn’t that wide (to ensure you don’t run down the battery when you need it most) but does include the likes of Twitter and internet browser, which surprised me somewhat.
When in UPSM, the phone will keep data consumption down to only when you’ve got the screen fired up, which means you won’t get background notifications or similar. It’s also not a good idea to use the browser or any other data-hungry apps in this mode, as they seem to completely negate the point.
For instance, at 7% I activated UPSM, and it told me I had 21 hours of standby remaining. One hour later, I pulled it out my pocket to see the same readout. However, I then spent three or four minutes browsing the web and then checking a couple of things on Twitter, and it had inexplicably fallen to 2% battery life.
However, on the plus side, if you’ve got a full battery and want to use this as a festival phone, you’re laughing as it can last days in this mode if you’re efficient with use.
In reality, I’d suggest that you use this mode wisely. Don’t do anything data-driven, just have it as a method of sending and receiving calls and texts when you’re on a night out and need to preserve precious battery juice.
I was quick to decry this mode as relatively pointless when I first played with it in Barcelona, stating that you might as well just switch the phone off, but in reality it’s a good idea and one that works better than that found on the likes of the HTC One M8, which is an almost identical system but doesn’t add in that handy grayscale screen mode.
It does take nearly 15 seconds to switch from the normal mode into this hyper power saving option, which is odd and irritating – so get ready to just activate it and dump the phone in your pocket. If it was quicker, I’d probably turn it on and off when I knew I wouldn’t need the phone – sadly that’s not really an option.
The addition of biometrics in phones is a topic that can be infuriating – namely because so many brands try to do it for the sake of it.
Apple managed to get it right first time with TouchID (slight accuracy issues at times aside) and the rest of the industry seems to have been quietly playing catch-up.
HTC’s One Max had the scanner on the back of the massive phone, but it was impossible to hit. Samsung has at least placed it on the home key, which is a more intuitive place, but the accuracy isn’t as high as Apple’s version.
It’s not bad, and it’s definitely the second best on the market from Samsung, but the Galaxy S5 wants you to swipe your digit down vertically in line with the phone – not a natural gesture.
The good news is that you can swipe a thumb sideways across and still have things work, but the accuracy is lower. Only about one in seven or eight attempts would see me able to open the phone first time, and if your hand is slightly askew then you’ll hit the maximum of five attempts pretty easily.
I found that it began to degrade even over only a few days, but as you can add in up to three prints, I deleted my first effort and tried using my thumb both straight down and at an angle. This seemed to satisfy the sensor a lot more, leading to a much greater accuracy when unlocking the phone.
I’d usually have deleted the last section when I found a way around the issue, but I’m going to keep an eye out for further degradation and most users wouldn’t think to retry their print. As I said, by having the same thumb print in two different ways it seems to have made a world of difference to the accuracy, but that shouldn’t need to be the case.
Download Booster – one of the best ways to destroy your data allowance if you leave it turned on. I’m joking, as it’s not going to harm you that much unless you’ve got a tiny 4GB data cap.
The premise is simple and it works: you have 4G but are connected to Wi-Fi and you want to download a file from the magically cloud-based world of the internet. Instead of just using the speed of one, their powers are combined to create a super speed.
If one fails, the other will pick up the slack and keep the download rocking, which means as long as you’re nabbing things over 30MB, you’ll be speedier than ever.
I don’t know why 30MB is the limit – given a lot of things are smaller than that but can still take a minute or two to download, it would have been brilliant to use the upgraded speed as I saw fit.
One confusion from Samsung is whether or not you can use the Download Booster when not connected to LTE / 4G. The app says only the superfast next-gen mobile speeds are allowed, but the icon at the top of the screen will still appear when 3G is on offer.
However, it doesn’t fire to speed up downloads, so one has to assume this is another glitch from Samsung.
The screen on the Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of the best on the market, and easily the best feature of the phone. You can talk about the extra innovation all you like, but if a phone has a good battery, strong camera and great screen then it’s on to a winner.
The thing I like is the range it offers – it’s brighter than some LCD panels, looks more vivid at full power than the likes of the HTC One M8, can go darker than the rest (as Samsung acknowledges that a lot of us like reading in bed) and is still pin sharp throughout.
The Full HD Super AMOLED screen delivers 22 percent higher brightness than the Galaxy S4 without munching down any more power, according to DisplayMate. You can head over there now to see the full, detailed run down of just what makes this a brilliant screen in superb detail.
But here’s the upshot: the days of the Super AMOLED screen being a colourful mess are over. Samsung has plied the Galaxy S5 with all manner of settings to let you find the exact balance you want, and features like Adapt Display are excellent at making sure that even in bright light, the screen is clear.
Annoyingly this latter mode can’t be used with all apps, but it still makes the main ones, like internet browser and gallery, look a lot better even outside.
The high brightness, exquisite sharpness and better colour reproduction (catering to most tastes) will impress all but the most exacting of standards, and if you’re someone who will spend a high chunk of time looking at your phone screen for movies, internet browsing or just flicking through photos, this 5.1-inch 1920×1080 option is the best out there right now.
It’s annoying that a better option exists both on the LG G3 and the Samsung Galaxy S5 LTE-A version, as these offer crisp and clear screens that would improve even the excellent display on show here. That’s tech fans for you though – always wanting a little more.
The Note 4 is also a much-improved display, and one it’s worth noting has been ranked as the best on the market by DisplayMate – worth checking out if you’re thinking about which Samsung phone to buy.