Samsung Galaxy S5: Australian Review

It's here! It's finally here. We've put the Samsung Galaxy S5 through its paces, and it's the first Galaxy device built for human beings.

What Is It?

The Galaxy S5 is a 5.1-inch smartphone from Samsung, powered by a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor 2GB of RAM and holds 16GB of internal storage (expandable up to 128GB via a microSD card). It runs Android 4.4.2 with a TouchWiz UI overlay.

It runs on just about every 4G network you can imagine, and also packs in a proprietary Download Boost feature that fuses together speeds from your 4G network and your Wi-Fi connection to make nabbing files faster.

The S5 is also packing Bluetooth 4.0, a 16-megapixel camera with Isocell technology, an integrated heart rate monitor built into the flash unit which reads your pulse from your finger, a fingerprint scanner under the home button, and a IP67 waterproof rating, meaning you can immerse it in water up to one metre for a period not exceeding 30 minutes.

It's also dustproof and protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3, which means you can be a tad rougher with it than you would a Galaxy S4, an iPhone 5s or the new HTC One M8.

Speaking of its closest competitor, the HTC One M8, by comparison you find that the Galaxy S5 packs in a better camera — 16 megapixels on the S5 compared to 4-megapixels on the One M8 (though it isn't exactly apples and oranges), as well as a battery that's 300mAh bigger.

HTC throws free Google Drive storage your way, but Samsung is still sticking with Dropbox. You'll get a bonus 50GB out of Sammy as a thanks for buying the device, as well as a series of "gift" apps.

We put gift in quotes because most of the apps you're getting are free anyway, or at least they should be. You get Evernote (free) a years' subscription to Bloomberg Businessweek+, 90 days of free 1TB Bitcasa storage (which will cost you $10 per month afterwards) 180-days of free EasilyDo Smart Assistant premium features (which will cost you afterwards), the lark Activity Tracker (free), an Aussie mapping app called MapMyRun (free), Box (free) and RunKeeper (free).

The only genuine gift that you won't have to give back after a period of time comes from Cut The Rope 2, which gives you a variety of character DLC add-ons worth $15, and Workout Trainer which is normally $1.99.

The phone itself will cost you $929 outright, or it's available on a range of contracts which we've outlined in detail towards the bottom of the review.

Hardware

Design

The main problem with the Galaxy S4 in terms of design is that it looked identical to the Galaxy S III: a cheap plastic pebble. Thankfully, the Galaxy S5 is a departure from the two older brothers.


Samsung is changing its design language for the new Galaxy S5, once again taking design cues from the enormous Galaxy Note 3. Gone are the nature-inspired finishes, sounds and imagery.

Instead Samsung is calling its new design language “Modern Glam”. Basically it’s an attempt at fusing technology with high-street glamour with shiny finishes, bright colours and unique textures. The S5 will come in four colours, branded as Charcoal Black, Shimmery White, Electric Blue and Copper Gold.

That gold though. That leaves a lot to be desired...

While it isn't anywhere near as beautiful as something like the HTC One M8, it's the best looking handset Samsung has made in a long time. Probably because it's not as pretentious as its predecessors with their fake leather backs, "nature-inspired" BS and recyclable-looking materials.

It's sturdy, grip-able, strong and elegant. It's thinner and lighter than you expect, and the new grooved design on the edges makes it easier to hold.

It still packs a lot of bezel, but the screen is wide enough that it isn't distracting.

Display

The Galaxy S5's 5.1-inch, 1920x1080 pixel Super AMOLED display is brilliant. More than just a great smartphone display, it is genuinely one of the best displays I have seen full stop.

Samsung has a selection of five Screen Modes, each of which slightly tweaks the AMOLED display's contrast and colour balance. For the most part, we found the Cinema mode to provide the best and most accurate colours, mainly because it has the lowest contrast and smallest bias towards blues. Adapt Display tweaks colours depending on the app you're in; for general use, where colour accuracy isn't too important, we'd recommend Standard — purely because it looks especially vivid and punchy. Even better — there's no immediate evidence of screen burn-in after two days of use (looking carefully at variance in primary colours using the burn-in tool on the Play Store).

The wide range of brightness adjustment available to the Galaxy S5 means that it's extremely versatile; you can be using your phone outside in bright sunlight and still see it clearly, then walk into a dim indoors setting and There's around a three second delay before the phone's automatic brightness level changes; this usually isn't noticeable except if you're trying to trick the phone's ambient light sensor (next to the top earpiece on the S5's front). Switch off automatic brightness and the entire range of variance is exposed — the S5's screen can be incredibly luminant or extremely dim, depending on your needs; it's the best smartphone display we've used.

There's one caveat, though — I ran into a minor issue a few times where the S5 wouldn't automatically adjust the screen's brightness when moving from an extremely bright to extremely dark environment, or vice versa. This is an issue I've seen before on the Galaxy Note 3, and it's a little annoying, but can easily be fixed by disabling and re-enabling automatic brightness.

In general, the S5's display is brilliant in the most accurate sense of the word. It's bright, has vibrant and vivid colours that can be slightly tweaked, and it's incredibly detailed (at 432ppi). At the moment, it blows every other smartphone screen out of the water.

Camera

It's tough to compare the camera on the Galaxy S5 to anything on the market right now. Its most recent Android competitor, the One M8 only has a 4-megapixel camera, but it's a unique beast in that it has two cameras (one for adding depth information to an image), and has a pixel size of 2µm as opposed to the S5's 1.2µm. In the real world, HTC says that the larger pixel size makes up for the dramatically smaller sensor size because it manages to capture more vibrant colours and better light. Samsung counters with the argument that it's using its ISOCELL camera technology on the sensor.

Basically, ISOCELL technology means that every cell on the sensor is isolated. There's a barrier between each individual pixel, which reduces something called crosstalk. Crosstalk is when light intended for one pixel crosses or bleeds onto another, and when applied on a large scale, reduces overall image sharpness and colour accuracy. Samsung's ISOCELL technology cuts down on that crosstalk for a better image.

The ISOCELL camera also means that a lens can be mounted closer to its sensor, cutting down on the overall thickness of a camera and in turn, the smartphone itself.

Compare both of these to the camera on the iPhone 5s, and it becomes confusing once again. Apple says that it won't increase the megapixels on its camera for the sake of marketing, so it left it at 8-megapixels. Instead, Apple redesigned the sensor entirely in order to capture more light. It had a similar idea to HTC, and increased the size of the microns on its sensor to 1.5µm. That means that the iPhone 5s, despite being almost a year old, has a better sensor for detecting light than the Samsung Galaxy S5, which has been out for a matter of days.

As far as autofocus abilities go, the two Android players can barely be measured these days. That's thanks to both of them packing in phase-detection autofocus tech meaning that images are ready to snap in less than 0.3 of a second.

Camera software is also an issue when it comes to deciding which is best. HTC's new camera app seems to ratchet the exposure down on its images by default so as not to wash out the image entirely when it comes to capturing it. Apple's iOS 7 camera still shoots a smaller image when it comes to aspect ratio, but more than makes up for it with one of the most intelligent Auto HDR facilitieswe've yet seen, and Samsung claims that it has HTC's refocus ability beat thanks to a new software tweak that captures three images at once allowing the user to choose three focal lengths at any point in the future.

On paper, it's tough to decipher who might win in a camera showdown. A few image tests show that the race is just as close.

Interestingly, image file sizes on the Galaxy S5 are around 5-7MB for an photo taken in high-light, high-colour scenes. We're not sure why they're so big when files from the iPhone and the HTC come in at around half that, but we can suppose that it's thanks to combining images together for the refocus capability, which works beautifully at the three focal points available, and the larger file size thanks to the higher resolution camera.

Click to enlarge










The HTC One M8 has a strange habit of overexposing images in well-lit scenes, while underexposing them in low-light so as not to wash out the image and therefore scrub the detail with the available light.

By comparison, the iPhone 5s and the Samsung Galaxy S5 both have beautiful colour reproduction and handle the light well during the day. The S5 produces a wider and more versatile image thanks to its wider lens and bigger sensor.

One thing is still for sure: while Samsung's low-light performance continues to improve, it still can't compare to its rivals at HTC or Apple.

Sound

The Galaxy S5 has a single rear-facing speaker, on the lower right-hand side of its chassis. The speaker is reasonably clear and reasonably loud, but isn't nearly able to match the audio output of its chief competitor, HTC's One M8.

To give the S5 fair credit, for overall audio quality, it's one of the better smartphone speakers we've heard. Place the phone screen side up and play some music through the S5's speaker, and you'll have enough audio to fill a small room — although there's little to no audible mid-range or bass, which is to be expected given the audio driver's tiny dimensions, music is clear and reasonably detailed.

If you're watching a YouTube video or movie clip in a small and quiet room, the rear speaker is able to project enough sound that the S5 doesn't sound too weedy or indistinct. In a larger room or with any kind of ambient noise present, it quickly gets drowned out. The best tactic is generally to cup the speaker in your hand, bouncing the sound around the front of the phone towards your ears — this does a great deal to boost the volume of the S5, but we can't help but with that Samsung had found a way to shoehorn some stereo speakers onto the S5's front glass.

Battery

With heavy use, we managed to get around two days out of use from the Galaxy S5. Pretty good considering all the tech it has to run in terms of added extras.

That's around double the life of the iPhone 5s, but only around two-thirds of the life we managed to get out of the surprisingly economical HTC One M8.

Samsung has also built a hardcore battery saving mode into the Galaxy S5 which reportedly extends the battery stand-by time up to a month. We haven't had the device for that long just yet, so we're still testing it. We'll let you know what we find in a few weeks.

Waterproofing

To test the waterproof capabilities, we immersed the Samsung Galaxy S5 in a large glass of water for a period not exceeding 30 minutes. It lives to tell the tale.

The only concern we had about the device was the rear cover and how well it connects to the device. If it's open even a little, water will pour in and ruin almost $1000 worth of smartphone.

The phone tries to warn you when it figures out that it isn't correctly sealed, but once you've dismissed that warning, it won't show up again. It's slightly stupid to say this but I think that warning shouldn't be allowed to be dismissed until the unit is correctly sealed, otherwise you may inadvertently screw up your device.

Software

TouchWiz

It's back, and less awful than ever. You know those "Most Improved" ribbons schools hand out to kids on awards days? You know, the one that says 'you're not that great, but you aren't nearly as terrible as you were this time last year'? The Galaxy S5 is this year's recipient.

TouchWiz is one of the worst Android skins on the market. It's slow, cumbersome, obnoxious and badly designed, but it's much more tolerable this year.

Last year's Galaxy, the S4, was all about nature. Designs, sounds and feelings "inspired by nature". This year, they've dumped that in favour of the Modern Glam we mentioned earlier. It really shows in the icons, colours and overall vibrancy of the OS. Fonts have also been overhauled, as have the menu animations (which, admittedly, are still a little slow).

Gone are the overt references to the useless S-branded features like S-Travel, S-Planner, S-Fitness and S-Motion. They're now called things you might actually use like the S-Finder app from the Galaxy Note 3's AirView menu, Smart Remote for controlling your TV, Quick Connect for beaming your content out to another screen and simple Music, Video and Gallery apps. It's all a lot easier to understand on the Galaxy S5.

The only truly ugly thing about your home screen now is grouping apps into folders. Rather than use a square icon like iOS and HTC Sense Six to contain multiple apps, or even a quaint little circle underneath a group of app icons like last year, Samsung has gone with a literal folder image like on Windows 95 to indicate a grouping of apps on the home screen. Even worse, it allows you to change the folder colour to five of the ugliest colours ever, and none of them match the boring grey of the folder itself so you're stuck with a tasteless two-tone stripe for every folder you create.

Worst of all, the locked dock is back, and probably here to stay. Want to change the order of the apps in your fixed home screen dock? No shot. Feel like switching out the awful default internet browser Samsung stuffs into the phone to something like Chrome or even Opera? Nope. What about replacing the messages app with Hangouts, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger? Noooooooope! You see where I'm going with this? It's locked-down Android, and it sucks. Android is meant to be fully customisable, and Samsung is taking that away from you.

Furthermore, moving apps, widgets and folders on the home screen around is once again a clunky and laboured process. Once again, you have to select "Edit" before any changes can be made to the home screen's layout. To further frustrate you, the Edit button isn't where it should be this time around. While it used to be inside the context menu for the home screen, it's now hidden under a transparent little pencil icon in the lower right hand corner of the screen in-between the locked Dock and the rest of the home screen.

Samsung is happy to double up on the menus in its settings pane so everything's easier to find, but you can't duplicate the Edit button so that an already laboured process is made that much more difficult? Come on, Samsung.

Feel relieved, however, because it's easier than ever to boot Samsung's awful home screen experience into the never never and install something you'll actually like.

Google's Nexus 5 is still the best Android device on the market, mostly thanks to how easy it is to use from a software point of view. It's vanilla Android, and it's beautiful. Android 4.4.1 on the Nexus 5 introduced the Google Now launcher: a pure and simple way to view and use Google's flagship operating system.

Google signed that piece of software to tell it not to work on any device but a Nexus 5 and up, but that hasn't stopped enterprising developers over at XDA Developer Forums from pulling out the .apk file and making it available to the masses.

Simply install the .apk, select it as the default launcher when you're asked and you have yourself the sweetest Android experience anyone could ask for.

Of course, if you don't like the Now launcher you can still use something like Nova Launcher or any of these fine apps.

To make sure you pull excellent download speeds on the new Galaxy S5, Samsung has included a new feature it calls Download Booster. Basically, Download Booster fuses the 4G antenna with the Wi-Fi antenna and uses their powers combined to pull down data faster. The only problem is that when it's turned on, you can only pull fast data through when the download is over 30MB, and it's within a Samsung-approved app like the Internet browser or the Google Play/Samsung Apps store. Sorry, torrenters.

Health

Samsung has always wanted you to live in its ecosystem forever, and as part of a new push to make it happen (with everything from watches to software), it's now drastically improving the way it gives you health stats.

Samsung's updated S-Health 3.0 app now conveniently tracks steps via a built-in pedometer (controlled by the accelerometer), as well as your water and food intake.

You've also got an integrated heart rate monitor built into the flash unit which reads your pulse from your finger.

S-Health 3.0 is an amazing upgrade from the old health app Samsung threw at the wall in the Galaxy S4. It tracks everything you could want it to, but it needs better partner app integration with apps like sleep trackers and even MyFitnessPal. Having said that, it does have a remarkably detailed food database that includes Australian-specific brands and measurements.

The weird part comes when trying to integrate S-Health with your Samsung Gear wearable device.

Wearable Integration

Gear Fit:


The Gear Fit is a wristband with a 1.84-inch SuperAMOLED screen which curves around your wrist. It supports interchangeable straps if you get tired of the black one it comes with, and supports a whole bunch of standalone fitness software. The screen it boasts doesn’t sound like much, until you see it in real life.

It’s a revelation.

It takes the concept of curved OLED and sticks it into a device that genuinely looks futuristic. The only concern is that the bezel is sizeable, but it’s nothing that the bright, colour-rich OLED won’t distract you from.

Underneath the band is an optical heart-rate tracker for measuring your pulse and recording it in the device, both when you’re resting and when you’re working out.

What’s interesting is that the fitness coach can also give you contextual information relevant to your health as you work out. Say you’re going a bit too hard for example, the Gear Fit will know that based on your heart rate and encourage you to slow down. It actually feels like a fitness tracker that can finally give you contextual orders about how you should be not just walking, but working out.

The Gear Fit has a media controller app for switching songs on your phone, but it would be nice if it packed in some internal storage like the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo so it could be used as a standalone fitness tracker, however.

Having used the Gear Fit for a few days with the S5, it feels slightly disconnected from the phone's health ecosystem. The Gear Fit is controlled by a piece of software called the Gear Fit Manager. It syncs with the phone once every three hours or so, and serves to push content back and forth like notifications (which now include more detail) and input from the Media Controller on the Fit.

I did 9055 steps on the Fit yesterday (compared to 8750 on the Jawbone UP24 after wearing both for the same amount of steps), and I couldn't find that on my S-Health 3.0 app. Everytime I go to trigger the S-Health pedometer, it starts from zero rather than take into account the steps I do on the wearable, which begs the question, why wear it when the integration sucks?

Gear 2:

The Galaxy S5 is the launch partner for the Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch. Connecting over Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, the Gear 2 has an integrated heart rate monitor, pedometer, and camera, and its 1.6-inch AMOLED display shows notifications from its paired smartphone. It functions mostly to show you when someone's calling or messaging if you don't have the S5 already close to hand — convenient, but not incredibly useful.

If you're the kind of person that likes to keep notifications and homescreen widgets to a minimum, the constant, hovering notification in the taskbar that the Gear 2 is connected will quickly get annoying. The setup process — through Samsung's Gear Manager app, which is an optional but relatively light install from the Samsung Apps Store — is quick, and uninstalling the app disassociates the Gear 2 from the S5. Beyond installing the Gear Manager app, there's little that you can do on the S5 to tweak the Gear 2 — that's all done on the smartwatch itself.

The camera is back on the Gear 2, this time upgraded to a 2-megapixel camera with the odd ability to shoot photos at 1920×1080 with an auto-focus capability.

If you’re not a fan of the camera, however, you can opt for the presumably cheaper Gear 2 Neo, which doesn’t pack the shooting options.

Perhaps the most welcome addition to the new Gear smart watches is the IP67 certification, ensuring that the gadget is both dust and water resistant. The last Gear flinched at the very sight of water, so adding resistance to the mix is a boon for those wanting to use it every day.

We still need to test the Fit and the Gear 2 to see if it gets any better. We'll update this in a few days.

Biometrics

To protect all of your personal data on the S5, you're now saddled with a fingerprint reader stowed underneath the home button.

TouchWiz can store up to three fingerprints, and as soon as you go to test it you realise just how cumbersome it's going to be.

You see, it isn't like the TouchID sensor on the iPhone or even the fingerprint scanner on the HTC One Max. Those sensors simply require you to tap your finger, whereas the sensor on the S5 relies on the old drag motion to scan your print thanks to the narrow surface area of the home button.

It also requires you to swipe the desired finger straight down on the sensor to get a decent read on your print. The problem with that becomes immediately apparent when you hold the phone in one hand like most normal people will do 90 per cent of the time. When you go to swipe your thumb on the phone, you end up swiping sideways to save you dropping the $1000 piece of tech in your hands. From that angle, the sensor will reject your print.

On average, it took me four times to get the sensor to read my print properly. Often, I had to hold the device in two hands or use my second hand to produce the print, which won't always be available to someone on the go with handfuls of stuff.

Furthermore, the animation it plays between accepting the print and unlocking the device takes about 1.5 seconds too long to unlock your phone. When you're looking for something urgently, that 1.5 seconds feels like a lifetime.

Samsung has imbued the Galaxy S5's fingerprint sensor with the FIDO authentication standard, so whenever you're presented with a PayPal prompt — after lunch at a cafe, for example — you can swipe your finger on the S5's home button to make a payment; there's no tapping away at the keyboard entering a complicated strong password.

Setting up your fingerprint is relatively easy and painless. When you first install and launch the PayPal app, you're prompted to enter a fingerprint — I used my right thumb, since it's the natural fit for the front home button. After swiping and re-swiping a dozen times to get a more accurate picture of your fingerprint impression, the S5 saves the fingerprint and associates it with the PayPal app — you can then use it to authorise payments made through the app, or to more quickly login to check on your account activity and wallet balance.

It's generally simple to use; like any fingerprint sensor it's not perfect, and occasionally I had to retry swiping, and once I accidentally pressed the home button as I was swiping, pausing the PayPal app and crashing the fingerprint scanner. It usually works, though, and it does speed things up compared to entering a strong password.

Price

Say what you want about the Galaxy family, it's certainly not getting cheaper with age.

It's $929 for the 16GB model, although if you're shopping around, Telstra has it for $912 off-contract.

Compare that to the HTC One M8 and you find that's its only slightly cheaper at $899. Apple comes in cheapest for a 16GB flagship at $869, but right now is probably the worst time to buy one considering that it's reaching the end of its lifecycle.

As far as carriers are concerned, you'll still be paying through the nose for the so-called next big thing from Samsung.

Telstra

Telstra will be selling the Galaxy S5 on its Mobile Accelerate plans.

That means you can get Samsung's new flagship for an extra $12 per month for 24 months on the $70 Mobile Accelerate Plan.

Said plan gets you $700 worth of calls and MMS, unlimited text messaging within Australia and 1.5GB of data, all on a 24-month contract.

Jolly expensive indeed.

Optus

Optus is offering the device on its MyPlan structure.

The cheapest you'll be able to get the S5 on an Optus plan is for an extra $26 per month on the $35 MyPlan, which includes 200 minutes of calls and 200MB of data.

That's not something normal people would be down with, so the other plans on offer include:

• $50 MyPlan: $21 extra for the device over 24 months, including 450 minutes of calls and 500MB of data; • $60 MyPlan: $16 extra for the device over 24 months, including 600 minutes of calls and 1.5GB* of data; • $80 MyPlan: $11 extra for the device over 24 months, including 800 minutes of calls and 2GB of data; • $100 MyPlan: $7 extra for the device over 24 months, including unlimited calls and 3GB of data;

All plans get free, unlimited SMS and MMS within Australia.

Here's all that in a handy chart.

Click to enlarge

Vodafone

The cheapest way you can get a Galaxy S5 on Vodafone is via the $30 plan, which includes $200 of calls and texts and 200MB of data. The phone costs an extra $28 per month on a 24-month contract.

There are tonnes of other 24- and 12-month contract options on Vodafone, almost too many to list. Many of them also have double-data included.

To make it easier, here's all that in yet another handy chart.

Click to enlarge

Virgin Mobile

Pre-orders are up on Virgin Mobile's website now, and the phone itself goes on sale online and in stores from April 11.

Virgin's selling the Galaxy S5 for $13 a month on its $60 per month plan, with double data available on any new phones until a month after the launch date. You'll get 3GB of data under the doubled plan — it's usually 1.5GB — and $700 worth of included calls, texts and other Virgin-only benefits.

You've really gotta want the S5 to buy it anywhere, really. This thing ain't going cheap.

While you can grey import it from places like Kogan and MobiCity, it might not be the best idea considering that you'll be transacting with your fingerprint and your PayPal account on this thing. You can never be sure what's in there these days.

For a list of every single plan available on the Galaxy S5 across all the carriers listed above, check out Lifehacker's Galaxy S5 Planhacker

Should You Buy It?

The big question.

I've never been the biggest fan of Samsung's Galaxy range. Touchwiz always made the experience feel claustrophobic. A feeling only enhanced by the release of the new Galaxy Note with a larger screen and better features a few months later like clockwork. I can happily say, however, that the Galaxy S5 is an upgrade even Galaxy S4 users will be happy with (provided they want to part with the cash).

It has battery life for days, a beautiful screen, an overhauled Touchwiz experience and relatively gimmick-free gimmicks like S-Health, heart-rate monitor, wearables, biometric payments and security integration.

Sure, it's a little expensive and the low-light abilities of the camera are still a bit ropey, but it's thinner and lighter than its HTC rival while still looking better than any Galaxy outed before it. The S5 feels more grown up than any of its predecessors. It's a phone that's as at home in your social life as it is in your professional. Plus, it has power and features to keep you occupied until the next one comes out, and even the one after that.

If you're a Samsung kind of guy or girl, the Galaxy S5 is made to delight you. Enjoy it.

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