Review: Samsung Galaxy S5

A Samsung smartphone launch tends to be more exciting than launches of other brands.

On one hand, I know that the company will stuff loads of features into every device, though not all of them may work perfectly and some are not even necessary. A few, like the motion and gesture features, have later been adopted by other brands.

On the other hand, I want to be there when it finally announces that it is junking plastic for more premium materials in its phones.

The latest, the Galaxy S5, still uses a plastic shell, but the added features are finally droolworthy enough to make me overlook the plastic.

It has stuck with the curved corners and the single front button design that is a hallmark of all its flagship Galaxy devices.

While many brands choose to seal their smartphones, making it hard to change your battery, both Samsung and LG have stuck with removable back covers.

On a recent trip to South Korea, I noticed that South Koreans prefer this to using external battery packs, so perhaps this design is more cultural than technological.

Samsung still uses TouchWiz, but it has made changes to this interface so that its presence is more subtle. For instance, its new customisable settings menu lets users create a list of favourites to appear on a drop-down menu, rather than forcing them to comb through the swelling list of features that Google and Samsung have shoehorned into the Android operating system.

Fast to focus

The biggest change is in the camera. The most obvious of the several remarkable changes is in the fast autofocus, which makes it less likely that you will lose any precious moments.

It focuses quickly even at night, producing great-looking pictures. The overall image quality of its 16-megapixel camera is comparable to that of the Sony Xperia Z2's 20.7MP camera, but the Z2 has the edge, with better details.

In low-light images, the S5 matches the Z2 in brightness levels.

Then there is live HDR mode. It takes the same photo under different exposures in quick succession, then merges all of them into one photo to even out light and dark areas, for a more balanced image.

It lets you see the final HDR image on screen before you press the shutter button, so that you can, if you wish, reposition the camera to produce the best lighting results.

Like the competition, Samsung has also included the refocus feature, which takes a photo with varying depths of focus, allowing users to select the focus in the final photo.

Many handset makers have introduced different versions of this feature, but unfortunately, none stands out.

HTC's method turns the unfocused area into an aggressive tilt-shift effect, while LG's use is a one-time thing as users cannot revisit the original picture to change the point of focus later on.

Samsung's Selective Focus does not let you pick a specific focusing point in the photo. Instead, you get to pick a near focus for foreground objects, far focus for background objects, or pan focus for everything to be sharp.

This automatic breakdown of near and far means the software may not detect the objects in the background that are meant to be in focus while the photo is being taken, leading to the camera simply snapping regular photos instead.

While HTC has this refocus feature set by default, Samsung's feature needs to be turned on.

Live HDR and Selective Focus cannot be used at the same time.

Finger activation

A significant addition to the S5 is the biometric sensor. You activate it by swiping a finger (it will store the biometric information for three fingers) downwards over the lozenge-like sensor.

This has to be a two-handed action, whereas for the Apple iPhone 5s, this can be done with one hand as it requires just a finger to be placed over the sensor.

What makes the S5's sensor dangerously useful is that Samsung has tied up with e-payments provider PayPal to enable biometric authorisations. You will not even need a password to be a big spender.

The new heart-rate monitor may be useful to older folks and people who work out frequently, but for most people, it will simply be the garnish on a dish few will bite into.

Samsung has added two terrific new features that will appeal to compulsive downloaders and heavy users of smartphone features.

Download Booster, when enabled, lets users concurrently download files larger than 30MB over 4G and Wi-Fi networks to speed up overall download times. But this applies only to sites without secured download protocols. In other words, not for cloud services such as Dropbox.

It took 20min 10sec to download the latest 130MB Open Office file over 4G. On Wi-Fi, it took 37min 36sec to complete.

With the booster turned on, it took only 12min 4sec. So the time saved is significant.

The other new feature which I like is the Ultra Power Saving mode. Most smartphones, including the Galaxy S5, have a power saving feature that disables mobile data, dims the screen and limits push services.

In Ultra Power Saving mode, the S5 restricts background data and greyscales the display. Because the Super Amoled screen does not use a backlight, all black pixels on display, including text and images, do not draw power.

Ultra mode lowers the brightness to 87 nits, instead of 400 nits, and caps the processor speed at 1.5GHz.

This is supposed to keep the phone running for another 24 hours, and still leave a 10 per cent charge.

Having a greyed-out phone that can handle calls and send SMS messages sure trumps having a super-fast smartphone with a colourful screen - and a flat battery.

In benchmark tests, the S5 clocked an impressive 25,598 on the Quadrant Standard.

The S5 packs some fancy frills, but offers enough useful features to make it the most power-packed Android device in the market so far.


Price: $1,068

Processor: 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801

Display: 5.1-inch Full HD Super Amoled 1,920 x 1,080 (432 pixels per inch)

Camera: 16 megapixels (rear), 2 megapixels (front)

Operating system: Android 4.4.2 (KitKat)

Memory: 32GB, 2GB RAM

Battery: 2,800mAh


Features: 5

Design: 4

Performance: 5

Battery life: 5

Overall: 5

This article was published on April 16 in Digital Life, The Straits Times.

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