Samsung Galaxy S5 (Verizon) review: a safe bet with a side of dull
Samsung is currently the undisputed king of Android and has been for a while.
That title, however, comes with a lot of responsibility. Samsung is expected to drive the market forward with innovative features, compelling hardware, fantastic software, and a second-to-none user experience. As such, many have been looking to Samsung in anticipation of yet another killer smartphone, for the South Korean manufacturer to up the ante and deliver one of the most complete phones on the market for a third year in a row.
Back in February, Samsung drew the curtains on the fifth-generation Galaxy S flagship, revealing a very slightly modified design, similar specifications as before, and a bevy of new sensors.
Does the Galaxy S5 live up to expectations? Or were the changes too minor to capture the market once again? Our very own Michael Fisher answered those questions with a full review of the device a few weeks ago.
No less, we’ve been putting a CDMA variant, the Verizon Galaxy S5, to the test for four days and here are our complete thoughts.
Specs & Hardware
The design of the Galaxy S5 is no more awe-inspiring than the two prior Galaxy S smartphones.
It’s a festival of ultralight plastics which attempt to act the part of much more expensive, higher-quality materials. The trim along the edges, to no surprise, is a shiny, faux-metal plastic and the backside mimics the perforated leather of a fine golf glove or leather shoe.
That’s not to say the Galaxy S5 is poorly made; it feels solid in the hand – there is no squeaking when you firmly grip the hardware. At the same time, it feels entirely insubstantial. It weighs just 145g, which may be heavier than the Galaxy S 4, but it’s still comparatively lightweight for such a large handset.
It could be worse. At the very least, the phone feels surprisingly resilient. The Galaxy S5 contrasts devices like the One M8 and Oppo Find 7a. We felt the One M8 needed a case to preserve its brushed finish and the Oppo Find 7a took on significant damage after a few, tiny bumps. The Galaxy S5, on the other hand, feels as if it can take some of what Brandon Miniman calls “life experience” without too much damage. It feels as if it can be carried without a case and be just fine.
It can’t go without saying that the S5 comes with a small degree of ruggedness. It holds an IP67 certification for ingress protection against dirt and water. This is evidenced by the water-resistant cover over the USB 3.0 port, the rubber grommets inside the battery door, and the pop-up notification which appears on first boot, telling you to make sure the battery cover is properly sealed. We tested it in the shower, in shallow submersion, and under running water without issue.
Other improvements come in the form of sensors, which many may find helpful – others … not so much. The Galaxy S5 comes fitted with a heart rate sensor and a fingerprint scanner. The heart rate sensor integrates well with the S Health suite, as well as the Coach by Cigna app. And the fingerprint scanner, integrated with the physical home button, is a) awkwardly placed for swiping and b) unreliable. A redeeming quality is the integration with third-party apps like PayPal and LastPass. But the execution could definitely stand some work. When our friend tested it, she had no problem with the scanner recognizing her fingerprint on almost every swipe. Only once or twice did she have an issue with a misaligned swipe. We, however, had far more trouble with the sensor, which only managed to accept roughly one out of every ten finger swipes. Your mileage will likely vary.
The guts of the S5 are marginally improved and, at the very least, on par with all the other top tier phones on the market. It’s powered by the impressive Snapdragon 801 SoC (a 2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU) and packs a 2,800mAh battery. It has a 16-megapixel camera with phase detection autofocus, a 2-megapixel front shooter, 2GB RAM, and 16GB of fixed storage. The microSD expansion slot comes with support for up to 128GB cards.
The display, as expected, is a beauty. In standard Super AMOLED fashion, it’s supersaturated, which may not sit well with those who appreciate a more accurate color gamut. But the supersaturated nature of Samsung’s smartphone screens has often been a draw for the company’s handsets.
At 5.1 inches with 1080p resolution, the display bears an impressive density of 432 pixels per inch. It’s incredibly sharp with exceptional side visibility, high contrast, extra inky black levels, and an extra low brightness setting – just 2 nits, perfect for a room with no lighting. Brightness could stand to be a tad higher for outdoor visibility, though.
If you’re okay with extra vibrant colors, the Galaxy S5 display will be a pleasure to look at for the next two years, give or take.
Once again, the Galaxy S5 hardware doesn’t exactly impress. It’s not much to look at and feels insubstantial in the hand, yet we can’t hate it because it has a great spread of specifications, auxiliary sensors (which aren’t readily found on competing hardware), and IP67 ingress protection.
It’s impossible to deny that it’s a balanced piece of hardware, even if we’d like to see the company get creative and challenge its design team for once.
While the aesthetics of the hardware hasn’t changed all that much, the software half of the equation has.
It comes running the latest version of Android, version 4.4.2 (KitKat). Of course, KitKat is running beneath Samsung’s custom software, TouchWiz.
However, Samsung has cleaned up the look of its software by going with a more minimal appearance. The notification shade, for one, has a much cleaner, less cluttered look. The quick settings toggles are still present, but are now circular icons and there are fewer changes and contrasts in background colors. Phone settings have also been simplified. No longer is there a tabbed interface. Instead, like the stock build of Android, all the settings are available in a single stream. And the circular icons are also present here, but here they’re colorful with seemingly no rhyme or reason.
The home screens are also slightly cleaner, but the leftmost page is now dedicated to Samsung’s My Magazine feature. Not terribly unlike BlinkFeed, it’s a social reader which integrates news from varying sources with social feeds. The core difference in My Magazine and BlinkFeed is how smooth and polished the experiences are. HTC’s social reader is buttery smooth. My Magazine stutters each time you swipe left to open, and scrolling grows more jittery over time. Not to mention, it feels more like a shortcut to the Flipboard app than a fully-functional, standalone reader. Tapping on an article headline will catapult you into the Flipboard app, and backing out of it will bring you back to the My Magazine view. It’s a disjointed and rocky experience. As such, we found ourselves looking elsewhere to browse news and our social feeds.
Still, the Galaxy S5 comes with no shortage of useful features.
S Health, for instance, is ever-expanding, though we’re still not sure we want to dive head-first into Samsung’s proprietary fitness ecosystem. You can see more about how Michael loves to exercise in his glimpse into a day with S Health and the Gear Fit. One of our favorite features, Multi-Window, has returned alongside another handy software feature: Toolbox. Toolbox is a free-floating Chat Head-like bubble with quick shortcuts to some helpful apps: Camera, Voice Recorder, Notes, and Calculator. From within Settings, you can customize which apps are used in Toolbox. Tap to expand or close, and flick it around when it gets in your way. And Samsung’s usual software additions are also still present: Smart stay, Smart pause, Power saving, Blocking mode, Car mode, and Private mode.
While the 5.1-inch Galaxy S5 isn’t quite Galaxy Note status, we were happy to find the trusty One-handed operation is present. A quick swipe gesture from the edge of the display and back will shrink the visible screen to the corresponding side of the gesture and fill the surrounding display space with helpful shortcuts to important contacts, Phone, Message, Settings, volume, etc.
Performing the same gesture again or tapping the expand button in the upper left corner of the minimized window will restore full use of the display.
Verizon has also included its own swath of bloat. Accessories, Caller Name ID, Cloud, Emergency Alerts, Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Amazon MP3, Amazon Appstore, Audible, Isis Wallet, Message+, My Verizon Mobile, NFL Mobile, Verizon Tones, Voicemail, VZ Navigator, VZ Protect, Flipboad, and Slacker all come pre-installed. None of these applications can be removed, but they can be disabled and hidden from the app drawer.
Like Michael said in his review of the Galaxy S5 and like we both found in our reviews of the Galaxy TabPRO series, which also ran this newer version of TouchWiz, all the visual changes are welcome, but the software still feels unfinished and a little rough around the edges, as if it were pulled out of the oven before it was finished baking.
Despite the slightly altered appearance, little is different in this incarnation of TouchWiz. We’re happy to see a small visual refresh, but this newest version of the software doesn’t fix one of the outstanding issues of TouchWiz: how bloated everything still is.
Michael explored the camera in great detail and nothing has changed between the AT&T-branded unit he reviewed and this Verizon model. We’ll be a little more brief this time around. For the full take on the camera, you can check out Michael’s findings here.
The camera UI has been altered and a lot of things have been moved around. It’s now easier to get to all the important stuff – settings, shooting modes, HDR, Selective Focus, etc. But it’s also just as easy to get lost in the settings. Hitting the cog icon reveals a staggering 27 different settings to adjust. Surprisingly, with all those options, a truly manual mode still has not been included.
The output of the 16-megapixel camera is quite stunning in daylight and well-lit scenes. Colors pop with a distinct intensity. They often appear surreal and more vibrant than true life, something many will enjoy and others will scoff at. No less, contrast is high and close-up photos have a nice, shallow depth of field.
That said, even in daylight, we had trouble with some shots turning out blurry and even missing the focus more than we anticipated. And low-light performance leaves much to be desired. Images are dark, noisy, filled with artifacts, and colorless. If night photography is your bag, you may want to skip this phone. Even though most phones tend to struggle in this area, the S5 is particularly disappointing at night and low light photography.
Video quality was also impressive in daylight. Colors were heavily saturated and the video often appeared somewhat underexposed, but the clarity and audio were great. It could use some stabilization and quick pans appeared jittery, but overall, we were pleased with the video quality provided by the Galaxy S5.
Unlike other 2014 flagships, the Galaxy S5’s front-facing camera is a mere 2 megapixels, not 5 megapixels like on two devices we recently reviewed, the HTC One M8 or Oppo Find 7a. Still, it manages to capture passable images for the occasional Oscar selfie or video chats.
It zips through menus with ease. Scrolling, pinch zooming in the browser, and opening applications all happen quickly and smoothly. However, there was often a bit of hesitation when pressing the Home or Recent Apps buttons. We thought the pause after pressing the Home key was due to S Voice shortcut, but we learned the Home button activation was turned off. The hesitation when pressing the Recent Apps button was often nearly a full second. The same one-second delay frequently appeared after choosing an app from the Recent Apps list, as well.
This is a minor detail basic users may never notice, but those looking for raw horsepower may have trouble overlooking it.
The phone’s performance in standard benchmark tests, though, is excellent, as is the gaming performance. Graphically-intensive games like Asphalt 8, Need For Speed: Most Wanted, and Dead Trigger 2 all run buttery smooth without frame rate drops. That said, through such heavy usage, like with the Multi-Window mode or one of said games, the phone does tend to heat up rather quickly. When it does, you can notice faster-than-normal battery drain, which can be problematic.
The stamina on the Galaxy S5 isn’t particularly noteworthy. In light or moderate use, the 2,800mAh battery will manage to last through most days without a midday charge. Through heavy testing – gaming, benchmarks, and taking pictures and video – we managed to squeeze out over nine hours of usage and 4 hours of screen-on time before the phone powered down. The rudimentary Power Saver mode should help prolong the stamina a bit to boot, and Extreme Power Saver will sacrifice nearly all smartphone functionality in favor of far more battery life.
With the display and gaming performance, the Galaxy S5 makes for a particularly great multimedia experience. We hoped the loudspeaker around back would compliment the rest of the phone’s media savvy features – and maybe we’re spoiled after having spent nearly a month with the HTC One M8’s BoomSound speakers – but we were not impressed. The Galaxy S5’s speaker may pack a punch for its small size, but the quality of the sound it emits is not great. It’s tinny, lacks any sort of depth and easily distorts. At best, we give it a meh.
Network speeds have been spectacular on Verizon’s LTE network in the Charlotte metro area. We averaged 14.6Mbps down and 7.3Mbps over 10 random tests, reaching peak speeds of 54.24Mbps down and 14.82Mbps up.
Call quality, however, was below average. Callers noted we sounded muffled. That said, audio on our end was loud and crisp.
+ Gorgeous Super AMOLED display
+ IP 67 ingress protection
+ Exceptional camera performance in great lighting
+ Ideal for mobile gaming, multimedia consumption
+ Removable battery
– Feels insubstantial in the hand
– Subpar camera experience in low-light
– Software feels half-baked
– Highlight features like the fingerprint scanner are unreliable
More Galaxy S5 Coverage
Pricing and Availability
Currently the Verizon Galaxy S5 is available in two colors: Shimmery White and Charcoal Black. Using Verizon EDGE, you can bring home the Galaxy S5 for $24.99 per month for 24 months, $599.99 sans contract, or $149 (or $99.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate) with a two-year agreement.
In all, we walk away from our short stint with the Galaxy S5 feeling somewhat unmoved, as if we’d been using a Galaxy S 4 all along, only after installing a new backplate and software update.
Having used many of its closest competitors’ devices, it seems other companies are putting far more effort into their top tier products while Samsung continues to try to leverage its monotonous, mundane hardware with dozens of features few will ever use off the sales floor.
Is the Galaxy S5 a fantastic buy? Absolutely, for both first-time and returning smartphone customers. Is it the best smartphone on the market? That depends on where your priorities lie. But we can tell you this: it’s the safest choice you can make.
If you want to be more daring, there are a half dozen alternatives – which are just as great – calling your name. That said, only some – not all – of those options are available on Verizon. But if you’re okay with carrying a smartphone that’s a little bit dull but will still get the job done, you can’t go wrong with the Galaxy S5.