Review: Samsung Galaxy S 5 is the best Galaxy smart phone yet

But its fingerprint scanner and heart-rate monitor may need more time at the clinic

Published: April 08, 2014 04:00 AM

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Samsung's new flagship Galaxy S 5 smart phone just could be the best model yet in this impressive phone family. Galaxy phones stand out for their impressive hardware and features, and the S 5 raises the bar. Refinements include a more-responsive 16-megapixel camera with simplified access to useful controls and effects, a battery built to survive long power outages, and a brilliant display determined to dazzle you indoors and out.

On the other hand, some of the new features, including the fingerprint scanner and heart-rate monitor, are a little rough around the edges. I found it often took multiple attempts to get either to do its promised job.

I've been using a press sample of the Galaxy S 5 for a few days. Here are my impressions of some of the features I highlighted in my early preview last month. Our engineers are now testing the phone, and will have a full review soon.

Snappy HDR camera

My informal observations suggest that the Galaxy S 5's camera is a winner. The controls are responsive and images are sharp, clear, and natural. One of the first things I noticed was how quickly it could snap a picture, and our engineers confirmed that it’s a hair faster than the speedy shutter on the S4.

It’s particularly impressive in HDR (high dynamic range) mode, the often-automatic setting for improving photos in bright sunlight and shadow. Many phone cameras I've used take more than a second in this mode, but the S 5 took just a fraction of a second. Another plus: It shows you a preview of what a photo will look like in HDR mode before you shoot.

Controls are easy to use, with fewer menus needed to access the camera's many features. The "gear" icon on the bottom left of the viewfinder opens a 12-button array of image-quality settings, while the Mode button takes you to a half-dozen effects.

The most useful of these modes is Shot and More, which takes a series of photos a few seconds apart. You can do several things in this mode. These include choosing the best still from the bunch; deleting a passerby who may have strayed into your picture; or choosing the best facial expressions from several pictures to make one "perfect" shot. I also found the camera was able to focus quickly and sharply on fast-moving objects, like someone jogging toward me.

One feature/effect with photo pros and artists will appreciate is Selective Focus, which lets you focus on subjects within a few feet, subjects a bit farther away, or infinity (such as mountain ranges and other distant objects in the background). It's easy to switch between focal points to compare so you can decide which element you want to focus on, then share that version. Selective Focus may take a little time to master, and you need a steady hand. But such is the price for creating poignant compositions.

The camera on the Samsung Galaxy S 5 has a creative focus option.

Dazzling display

The Galaxy S 5's 5.1-inch 1080x1920 SuperAMOLED display appears much like the Galaxy S 4’s display, except that it's 0.1 inches wider. Samsung's SuperAMOLED displays have performed well in our tests indoors and out, and the S 5’s display appears to be even better, especially in outdoor lighting. Not only could I read text and touch-screen controls more easily, but I could also see more details in photos when viewing them in direct sunlight.  

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Water resistance

The Galaxy S 5 supports the IP67 standard, which mandates that it withstand a 30-minute dunk in more than 3 feet of water. It operates underwater as well, a plus for anyone who wants to frolic with their new phone in and out the pool.

I experienced a more practical application when I unintentionally dropped it in a sink filled with hot, soapy water. It kept working. Warning: Make sure the phone's back cover is firmly snapped on and the USB port plugged. Otherwise, all bets are off.

Plan "B" battery

The Galaxy S 5 2,800 mAh battery provided me with an entire weekend of heavy-duty play before asking for a recharge. And even then, I was able to fully recharge it in a little more than hour, thanks to its USB 3.0 port. (You need to use a special charger that comes with the phone.)

More important, when you’re out of juice and you can’t get to a power source, the battery can squeeze out up to 8 more days in standby mode, according to Samsung. When you switch on Ultra Power Saving Mode, the Galaxy S 5 will sever its wireless connections except for sending and receiving voice calls and text messages.

The display also switches from color to a more efficient gray-scale mode. But even in this “survival” mode, you'll be able to use the camera's LED as a flashlight for short periods of time.

Fingerprint sensor is all thumbs

The Galaxy S 5’s fingerprint scanner allows you to unlock your phone with a swipe instead of using a PIN or password, as well as authenticate payments on Paypal. You can also use the Isis e-wallet app to pay at the point of sale by bumping your phone against a special terminal. Though there are currently very few stores with this capability, Isis is supported by a consortium of banks, retailers, and AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon (Sprint supports Google Wallet). You need a special SIM card with a secure element for it to work, which I didn't have, so I wasn’t able to try this feature.

In any case, I don’t think it would have mattered, because I found the fingerprint scanner wasn't that easy to use. For starters, the display needs to be on, and you need to drag your finger carefully and precisely over an area at the bottom of the display (The display shows you where to put your finger.) It often took several tries for the scanner to recognize my finger. By comparison, I rarely have trouble with the iPhone 5s Touch ID scanner, which can unlock the phone even when the screen is in sleep mode.

Check our review of the new Samsung Gear Fit smart watch.  

Fit to be (un)tied

I rarely take a phone with me during workouts (and I rarely work out, but that's beside the point), but the Galaxy S 5 might encourage me to do both. It has a rear-mounted sensor right next to the main camera's LED flash. When you put your index finger on it, you should see your heart rate on the phone's display. When used in conjunction with the included S-Health app, data from the sensor and other sources can help the app suggest changes to your routine to help you reach your fitness goals quickly and, one hopes, safely.

The fitness app and pedometer worked well. But, as with the fingerprint scanner, I had trouble getting the heart-rate monitor to give me a reading. It would often take multiple tries, which made my heart race even more.

Emergency mode

This is a feature designed to help if you’re in a car accident or other emergency situation. It worked as promised. Pressing the Galaxy S 5's power button three times triggers several actions that will be transmitted as five separate messages to multiple contacts of your choice, including 911. They include messages that indicate your location on a map and with coordinates, photos taken with the front or rear camera, and an audio recording.

A word of caution using this feature: Make sure you tell your friends that you've put them on your list. I surprised my wife with such a notification without letting her know. Needless to say, I had a lot of explaining to do.

Bottom line

The S 5 appears to be Samsung’s best Galaxy smart phone yet, thanks in part to a dazzling display, smarter camera, and some convenient "survival" features you can tap when things don't go as planned. But Samsung engineers may want to take a second look at the phone's biometric scanners.

Mike Gikas

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