By and large, the Pocketnow audience is a league of fiercely devoted mobile-tech aficionados whose collective knowledge I’ve come to respect and, at times, rely upon. They are the very essence of smartphone and tablet fandom: the passionate masses that make this field worth writing about.
They are also not my target audience for this piece.
Rather, this is an editorial for you normies out there – the average folk who have, by choice or by birth, been blessed with one of “us” in your life. I’m writing this because Samsung just announced a pretty epic smartphone yesterday and, mobile mavens being the spoilsports they sometimes are, a lot of them are going to try to ruin it for you. Some of them are doubtless already at work, eroding your enthusiasm for the company’s latest exercise in Android bad-assery.
Don’t let them. Because the Galaxy S 5 is cool.
I don’t say this because I’m certain that Samsung’s latest superphone is flaw-free and fabulous; I won’t know whether that’s true until we put it through the full review treatment. It may end up being the biggest failure since the Kin, in which case I’ll march right back here and update this post with a selfie of me eating my hat or something. Rather, I’m sticking up for the Galaxy S 5 because it’s being unfairly maligned, its feet held to the fire because it failed to live up to the unreasonable expectations of a jaded and fickle consumer audience.
More importantly: I’m sticking up for the Galaxy S 5 because many of its positive aspects say great things about the company that built it. Here’s five of those things.
It’s water resistant
Last year’s Galaxy S 4 Active was one of my favorite phones to review. It had an exterior that didn’t scratch at the slightest touch, it featured a big flagship-class spec sheet with a screen to match, and you could take it to the swimmin’ hole without worrying about destroying it (though salt water was another story). The only catch was that, in exchange for its more trouble-repellent characteristics, it sacrificed the highest of its sibling’s high-end features.
The Galaxy S 5 is a Galaxy S 4 Active done right. It’s completely protected against dust and you can submerge it in fresh water up to a meter deep for up to 30 minutes without hurting it - and you don’t sacrifice any of the flagship’s high-end features to do it, because the Galaxy S 5 is the flagship. Sure, competitors like Sony have been doing this for years, but never has such built-in damage resistance come to a Galaxy device with so little sacrifice demanded in exchange. And water resistance has a way of coming in handy when you least expect it.
The software really is better
It’s not entirely clear when geek society started complaining about Samsung’s crappy third-party interface, but it’s safe to say that TouchWiz haters were probably coming out of the woodwork as early as version 1.0. Much of that hate is justified; TouchWiz’s reputation for sluggish performance and useless bloat is well earned. But while the version running on the Galaxy S 5 doesn’t by any means reinvent the wheel, it does bear evidence of a company that’s listening to user feedback.
Using the Galaxy S 5 for the few hours I had with it at NYC’s Galaxy Studio yesterday, I was struck by the delicacy of the changes in the software. Where before there was only cartoonish nonsense, suddenly there was subtlety. Formerly textured icons had become flattened, cleaner versions of themselves; wonky neon squares had softened into easy pastel bubbles; and the entire software layer moved like it was floating on a light cushion of air.
It’s a long way from stock KitKat, of course -some of the visual disconnects remind me of Microsoft’s attempt to “modernize” Windows Mobile in version 6.5- but the new software is also a long way from the gaudy roots of TouchWiz. Any stock-Android champion would agree that’s an accomplishment worthy of praise.
The camera isn’t just improved – it’s refined
The same evidence of evolution can be found in the Galaxy S 5′s camera software. We’ve long considered Samsung smartphones some of the easiest to shoot photos with thanks to their user-friendly software, but things were starting to get ridiculous with the Galaxy S 4′s bevy of shooting modes, which only worsened with the Note 3 and its preposterous “Golf Shot,” along with its inexplicably hidden stabilization settings. Toward the end of last year, Samsung’s camera software was starting to go the way of the rest of TouchWiz: bloat and feature creep was winning, at the expense of common sense.
It seems the same group of software consultants/engineers/angels who put a Band-Aid on the larger UI problems also devoted some time to the camera, for many of these issues seem to have been corrected in the Galaxy S 5′s viewfinder. Samsung now groups esoteric functions into smaller hubs (Dual Shot is now properly placed in the shooting modes menu, where it should have been all along) and hides more granular controls under the safety of the Settings cog. If this all sounds elementary to you, I agree: it’s a shame it took the company so long to streamline its viewfinder software – but now that it has, the difference is truly striking.
You can’t find a more complete ecosystem
Thanks almost entirely to its epic saturation of the advertising space, Samsung’s smartphone portfolio enjoys the most complete hardware ecosystem I’ve ever seen in the Android space. Every manufacturer tries its best to give the impression that its devices are well supported by accessory manufacturers, but only at Samsung events do I consistently see a mind-boggling range of companion accessories.
From cases to wireless chargers to flip covers to battery chargers to headsets to a complete line of wearables, if you want it, odds are good that Samsung or a third party offers it (or is in the process of making it). Accessory support may seem a pedestrian afterthought to some, but a hardware ecosystem is part of what’s helped Apple propel the iPhone to such great heights – and Samsung has gotten closer to Apple’s success in this arena than any other manufacturer I’ve encountered.
More features, not more gimmicks
I’ve already touched on this point in some of the topics above, but all of the advancements that make up the Galaxy S 5 are evidence of an important shift within Samsung. No longer is this the company that pitches “features” like Smart Scroll and Smart Pause as groundbreaking new capabilities, only to quietly sweep them under the rug when they’re revealed as the half-baked circus tricks they are.
Instead, it’s becoming a company that asks what people want from their phones, listens to the answers, and then takes action to deliver on a few of the important ones (instead of a hundred of the superficial ones). Instead of pitching the media on the wonders of Air Gesture at yesterday’s press conference, Samsung talked up the virtues of its Knox mobile security offering, the S 5′s elaborate fitness suite, and a camera viewfinder that might change the way people take pictures. That’s real; that’s concrete; that’s a company I can take seriously when I ask what smartphone might be the right fit to accompany me through one or two years of my life.
Look: is this transformation 100% complete? Are we looking at a 180-degree reversal here? Absolutely not. I’m still not sold on the execution of the Galaxy S 5′s heart rate sensor, and if the fingerprint scanner works anything like that of the HTC One max (which it seems to), I think it’ll be the first thing most buyers disable out of the box. And Samsung’s strategy in wearables … well, I’m not sure it actually has one.
Ultimately though, I do think the Galaxy S 5 is a force for good in the Android world as a whole, and in Samsung’s corner in particular. It does more to advance the Galaxy brand than its predecessor, the Galaxy S 4, ever did – yet it’s getting more flack than its forebear because it failed to arrive with an aluminum casing, or a 2K display. Well, that’s just crazy.
Again, we’ll have to wait for a full review to determine whether the Galaxy S 5 is indeed worth buying. But I will go so far as to say this: if it excites you, it should. This is a powerful smartphone with a fair bit of promise, and there’s no shame in putting some hope in that promise. And don’t let any jaded geek tell you otherwise.