Every year, I wait patiently for the new iPhone, the new season of Game of Thrones and MWC (where a lot of Android flagships are announced). Over the last few years the reason has changed but the excitement is still there. Thanks to the rumor mill, there’s not much to really look out for in a launch event than to confirm what you’ve read and may be to settle that bet with your friend about that absurd feature which was hyped before the launch.
Samsung phones don’t really instigate the same passion as something from HTC or even Sony nowadays but this time was different. The days before the launch brought us minimal promo images with flat icons for the event. Some journalists took it as a sign that finally TouchWiz would be more minimal on the looks and less on the bloat as well.
Sadly, that’s not what happened. What we got was a fantastic update of internals and hardware. But no new UI, no weight loss, nothing. A lot of people felt like the S5 didn’t bring enough new stuff to the table. I’ll disagree. In fact, I think the S5 might have even gained some unnecessary weight.
My week with the S5 has surely been an interesting one, as you’ll find out below. As always, the question remains: Is the S5 better than the previous generation or the current flagships? The answer is not nearly as complicated.
The Hardware And Specs
The Indian version of S5 comes with an Exynos 5422 octa-core processor that’s made up of 1.9 GHz A15 quad-core and 1.3 GHz A7 quad-core processors. The international version of S5 has Snapdragon 801 processor with 4G/LTE while the Indian version only gets 3G bands. Samsung’s in-house octa-core processor is no slouch and you won’t see any slowdowns compared to the international version.
The only problem with Exynos is that it gets hot, sometimes for no reason whatsoever. I experienced the heating issue when I was reading in the Play Newsstand app. Although I have to admit, it is more “warm” than “hot”. You’ve also got 2 GB of RAM, and Mali 628T MP6 GPU (Adreno 330 elsewhere) churning the graphics. Underneath the sealed back cover you’ll find a single SIM slot and a micro SD slot that supports cards up to 128 GB. On the software side, you’ve got the latest version of Android – KitKat 4.4.2 along with Samsung’s TouchWiz skin. Check out the complete spec sheet here.
The front of the device is largely dominated by the 5.1 inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen. At the bottom you’ll find the home button that has a fingerprint sensor built in and capacitive multi-tasking (used to be menu) and back buttons on either side.
The soft touch dotted back feels nice to hold. At 134 grams the phone is really light and thin. It is too big to be comfortably used in one hand (S3 was the last Galaxy phone to do that) and the thin edges sit sharply in the palm of your hands. It’s a $700 phone that looks like every other $300 samsung smartphone out there. That is until you turn it around. The dotted back creates friction and doesn’t slip out of the hands easily.
The camera sits in the middle of the back plate and protrudes out a little. Below which you’ll find a single flash and a heart rate monitor.
Samsung got the power and volume button placement right. The power button sits about a quarter way down from the right side and is easy to get to no matter you are left or right handed.
The volume buttons sit on the opposite side. A lot of newer, especially budget and Sony phones have the power and volume keys on the same side, which leads to confusion.
Finally, at the bottom you have the micro USB charging port protected by a plastic flap that needs to be closed if you’re planning to go on some 1 meter deep under water exploration for no longer than 30 minutes.
Galaxy S5’s 5.1 inch 1080p (432 PPI) Super AMOLED screen is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It is right up there with the Retina Display. I found the text to be even sharper on S5’s screen than on iPhone 5s. Watching HD YouTube videos, playing games like Asphalt 8 makes for an amazing experience on the S5.
After using the iPhone 5 and Moto G, reading on the larger high-res screen was an absolute delight.
S5’s 16 megapixel camera is another thing that blew me away. The camera’s performance in day light is nothing short of spectacular. Some of the shots I took in a well-lit cafe in the middle of the afternoon could as well have come from an entry level DSLR.
One of the best smartphone cameras I’ve ever used.
Low light performance isn’t as amazing though. There’s still a lot of noise when using flash at night. The images are still clear, not as much grainy, but the difference between day light and low light performance is quite literally day and night.
Just like every other corner of Galaxy S5, the camera app is overflowing with features. Some gimmicky, some useful. The app has Picture Stabilization turned on by default. A useful feature, sure, but you’ll have to hold the phone still for a couple of seconds after you take the shot.
The app has a lot of photo editing features. But the feature set doesn’t compliment the photo quality. I’d suggest you use something like Aviary or VSCO Cam to click and edit images.
The Wrath of TouchWiz
Grab some popcorn, this is going to be a long section.
Like it or not, TouchWiz is a big part of S5, bigger than it ever was. And your only escape is rooting and installing a custom ROM. You can minimize the damage by installing a different launcher or turning off the animations and features you don’t like (the result is shown in the picture below) but by and large you can’t escape TouchWiz.
Thankfully, TouchWiz in Galaxy S5 is the fastest version of TouchWiz yet. But it still has the same problems. It is overloaded with bloat (more so now), unnecessary features and doesn’t look particularly good.
Samsung pre-installs their own version of almost all of Google’s default apps which are nowhere near as good as Google’s offering. Stats say Galaxy owners rarely use Samsung app but still, here they are. If you’re not going to use apps like Memo, S Voice or S Health, disable them so they don’t eat up your RAM.
Here’s a bit of trivia you can use to draw your own conclusions about TouchWiz. I needed to use Samsung Apps (Samsung’s version of Play Store) to download Gear 2 and Gear Fit manager apps, they aren’t available in the Play Store (why not Samsung? Oh, so I’d use your own store, got it). The first time I launched the app it said I needed to update the store. That’s weird because the Play Store takes care of that itself. Anyway, I was in a hurry and decided to “Update later” but then Samsung said I really had to install this update. If I didn’t, it would close the app. Then why give the “Update Later” option? Why not just give an “Exit app” option?
I decided to find my way in this world instead of taking a desk job. But Samsung has showed me what it would be like to work in an MNC. In a week’s use, I had to agree to at least a dozen license agreements.
Sometimes there were two different ones for a single feature. I understand the one when I’m setting up the phone. But why another for S Health? For Gear Fit? Even one for the Ultra power saving mode?
Instead of the rumored minimal and flat TouchWiz, all we got was a redesigned Settings menu that no one really asked for. The changes Samsung made are counterproductive. But thankfully you can revert to the list view from the menu. One good feature in the Settings app is the customizable “Quick Settings” (not to be confused with the Quick Settings in notification drawer) section where you can put 12 of your most used settings at the top.
Features, Features, Features
TouchWiz is feature-rich, we all know that. Compared to vanilla Android, it offers a lot of stuff. Some awesome, some gimmicky. Some needed, some nice to have, some you never asked for (looking at you again Settings app).
Galaxy Note’s multi-window feature can be found here as well. While not something you’d want to use all the time, it has its merits. Having two apps open that work hand in hand – a web browser and a note taking app can perhaps actually help you boost your productivity. The multi-window mode even lets you transfer stuff from one app to other just by drag and drop. So you can browse a large album of photos on one half of the app and just drop the important items into another app like Dropbox or Evernote in one gesture. There’s a mode that allows you to open links from certain apps directly in multi-window mode.
Samsung has also made big strides in power management. There’s a grayscale mode that turns the UI black and white which saves battery because the Super AMOLED screen doesn’t need to light up the black pixels. Turning it up a notch, we have Ultra power saving mode. It turns the display grayscale, only allows you to use six apps, turns off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and disables internet when the screen is off. Your phone can last for weeks in this mode.
In the Settings app, you’ll find something called “One handed mode”. This lets you run the fully functioning OS in a smaller window so your thumb can finally reach up to the status bar.
One useful feature that’s well implemented is Private mode. After you turn it on from Settings, you can view the hidden files and images. Turn it off and it’s as if they never existed. That’s one less third party app you need to install.
Added to the list of Samsung’s overflowing bucket of gimmicks is the heart rate monitor.
Other much advertised feature of S5 is the heart rate monitor at the back. It gets the job done but it is slow and behaves just like any other heart rate monitor app out there that use the camera and the flash to detect your heart rate (as demonstrated in this video). The monitors on the Gear watches are a lot more useful because they are always on and can give you information on the fly.
Usability Vs Annoyance
No software is perfect, in fact most of the code out there is bad. We want a new OS every year, new features every month and we want everything to be faster. In this fast moving world, the software is shipped as soon as it is “good enough”. The bigger and more complicated the software, the worse it gets.
Every year TouchWiz gets bigger and heavier, adding unnecessary features and gimmicks and not to mention bloated apps that you can’t uninstall. Even the fastest processor till date can barely keep up with TouchWiz. And until now, TouchWiz was just something you tolerated to get the top of the line hardware/experience on Android. With HTC One M8 and Xperia Z2, that just isn’t true any more.
There’s a limit to how annoying software can be and still be useful. TouchWiz in Galaxy S5 crossed that line.
The home button carries a fingerprint scanner. But the button is too short to act as a complete scanner so you have to swipe your finger just right to activate it. You guessed it, it doesn’t work well.
You can add up to three fingers and authenticate them in multiple angles to increase the probability of it working in one handed mode (in my case, it didn’t). Samsung suggests you hold your phone with one hand and swipe your finger or a thumb of the other hand perfectly straight on the sensor.
It has to be straight. It wont work if you go off from the button or swipe on an angle, swipe too fast or too slow. Basically, there are only so many ways to swipe your finger across a sensor and most of them are wrong.
When I showed the review unit to a friend of mine, the first thing he asked was “Have you tried using it under running water”? I had not. And I would not.
The S5 is IP67 water and dust resistant. You can dip the S5 in 1 meter deep water for 30 minutes and it should work fine. Notice it says resistant and not proof. Also, 1 meter is only about 3 feet. So jumping in the swimming pool with the S5 to take that underwater selfie probably isn’t going to end well. The USB port is protected by the flap but the headphone jack is wide open. When you remove the back cover, you see that the internal seal doesn’t protect everything. It leaves the camera module and the speaker grill unsealed.
So if you happen to drop this in water, don’t turn it on or start using it at once. Open it up, shake out the water, let it dry and then power it on. The internal seal means that the battery and the internals won’t be affected, that is unless you use it under running water.
Running water that comes out of your faucet is pressurized, meaning it has a better chance at breaking the internal seal and messing up the phone’s internals than still water.
The battery life of the Indian version with the power hungry octa-core processor is just ok. You can get a day’s worth of battery life if you stretch it. The best I got was about 34 hours of standby and 4 hours of screen-on. The worst was just an hour and half of screen-on time in half a day but I had Data, Location and Bluetooth turned on the entire time.
If you buy the S5, battery life is something you’ll have to manage on your own.
The Relevance Of Samsung
In 2014, it’s not about the specs anymore. You know we’ve left that station when a sub $200 Moto G (and even Moto E!) opens apps and works just as smoothly as a $700 Galaxy S5. I know that’s not a fair comparison but at least on one scale they are equal.
It is about the experience and the long term usability of a device. TouchWiz in S5 isn’t the iOS 7 design overhaul we hoped it would be. Not only is TouchWiz not improving, in some ways, it’s getting worse. The use of unnecessarily loud and bight colors are distracting instead of helpful. The core TouchWiz UI still looks the same, even more dull now.
With every update, TouchWiz keeps getting worse.
As consumers, our instinct is to always want something “new” and marketers have exploited that to sell us things we don’t really need. But it’s not just about new. It’s about better. So the question that needs answering is..
Is Galaxy S5 Better?
The screen is spectacular, and the camera takes some of the best images I’ve seen on a smartphone. Even with TouchWiz pulling its leg, the phone is still blazing fast (except when it isn’t, like in the Gallery app).
But is that enough for you to move on from your current phone? The iPhone 5 or 5s’s screen although small is just as good and so is its camera. S4’s screen isn’t as vibrant but has the same resolution.
Even if you wanted to upgrade, and you need a big screen, you have a couple of options. HTC One M8’s screen is just as amazing, the Sense UI isn’t nearly as cumbersome as TouchWiz and the speakers on One dwarfs any other phone out there. But it has one tragic flaw, which is the camera. Is the camera really that important? Look at Xperia Z2. It has a 20 MP camera that also takes amazing pictures, has a 5.2 inch screen that’s a lot better than previous Xperia phones, comes with a fast processor and Xperia’s custom skin is a lot more close to vanilla Android than TouchWiz.
Since the Galaxy S series came to be and right till the S3, the reason people bought millions of these devices was Samsung truly had the best hardware and specs for any Android phone. Yes, TouchWiz was bad but it was the price you paid to have the top of the line experience. Today, that’s just not true.
If you’re looking for a flagship phone and you need a sharp screen and the best in class camera more than anything else, go with Galaxy S5. If the over all usability, software experience, beautiful hardware design and long term use is what you’re after, go to a store and take a look at HTC One M8 and Xperia Z2 before handing over your hard earned cash.