Samsung Galaxy S5 hands-on: the phone you’ve been waiting for?

The Galaxy S5 smartphone isn’t the stunner that we expected, there’s nothing fresh about the way it looks nor is there one key feature that screams innovation but through the sum of its new parts it still positions itself as smartphone that many users will want in 2014

MANILA, Philippines – Once upon a time Samsung’s Galaxy S3 was THE Android smartphone of choice. With its fresh new look, unrivaled spec sheet and excellent camera, the S3 came at a time when scales were tipping in favor Google’s smartphone operating system. The phone sold over 50 million units, more than even the the iPhone, making it most popular smartphone of 2012.

One year later however, the global smartphone landscape was completely different with the likes of Apple, LG, Nokia and Sony releasing smartphones that were as good if not better than Samsung’s new flagship, the S4. 

Thankfully in the world of smartphones, every year is a chance to start over and do better. With rivals breathing down its neck, Samsung bolts first out of the gate this year with a brand spanking new flagship smartphone. 

The Galaxy S5 smartphone isn’t the stunner that we expected, there’s nothing fresh about the way it looks nor is there one key feature that screams innovation but through the sum of its new parts it still positions itself as smartphone that many users will want in 2014. 


Hard to miss is the striking resemblance of the S5’s front face to its predecessors the S3 and S4. The S5 is neither thinner, nor lighter. Its front face is in fact a bit chunkier with an aluminum frame that protrudes slightly around the sides of the display – removing any illusion of a screen that tapers off onto the sides of the phone.

Button placements are the same – volume rocker on the left, power button on the right, and on the front of the phone below the display, the same capsule-shaped home button that now functions as a fingerprint scanner.

Samsung’s 3 year-old rounded corners design is very much alive, and plastic is still the name of the game although the S5’s faux leather back gives it a different feel, almost premium but not quite.  

While faux leather is fast becoming a standard on all Galaxy devices since the Note 3, the perforated texture on the S5’s removable back plate looks different, feels better, and doesn’t have the heavily criticized stitching of the Note 3 and Tab Pro. 


Samsung’s custom implementation of TouchWiz gets a minor makeover in favor of a cleaner, fresher and flatter look and feel. This is in keeping with the flat design trend started with Apple’s iOS 7 last year. The settings panel of the S5 is very similar to that on Samsung’s Pro line of tablets; thin fonts, colorful circles with white icons – while visually appealing the new settings menu takes getting used to.

Thankfully with the S5 Samsung isn’t pushing any bloated gimmicky features down our throats. Several key features are introduced many of which with very practical uses. 

A new My Magazine mode is accessible via a quick swipe to the right from the home screen. Reminiscent of the Google Now window on the Nexus 5, and Blink Feed on the HTC One – My Magazine is a Flipboard-like listing of cards with stories based a selection of topics that you can customize. You can also include add your social media accounts like Twitter (we did not see Facebook on the S5 we reviewed). My Magazine is a scaled down version of the Magazine UX on the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Note Pro. 

A new Private Mode allows users to add private photos, videos and documents to private folders that disappear when Private Mode is turned off. You can toggle between modes using any of four security options. You can’t however hide text messages, emails or apps.

The Safety Assistance setting contains 3 nifty features including; send help message – which is activated by 3 quick presses of the power button and will send a photo or voice message to an emergency contact; geo lookout – which sends you disaster warnings depending on your location; and emergency mode – which turns your phone black and white, reduces functionality but extends your battery life for up 15 days.


One of the standout features of the Galaxy S5 is its camera.

The S5 is the first smartphone camera in the world with phase detection autofocus. A feature only available on a few premium mirrorless cameras and on DSLRs, phase detection gives the S5 super fast and accurate autofocus and makes it easier to focus on subjects in low light. 

It’s smart of Samsung to address autofocus speeds. As smartphone cameras get better and better, everyday users begin looking at other differentiating factors, like the speed at which they can take photos. With phase detect on the S5, the time it takes for the camera to focus on its subject jumps from 1 second on the S4 to about 0.3 of a second.

The S5 also sports a larger 1/2.6-inch sensor and more megapixels (16MP vs 13MP on the S4). Sensor size is a key factor in being able to take better photos, with better low light performance and depth of field. The S5’s image sensor is larger than the sensors on the iPhone 5s (1/3.0”) and LG G2 (1/3.06”) and but smaller than the sensor on the Xperia Z1 (1/2.3”) and the Lumia 1020 (1/1.5”).

The S5’s camera app has been simplified and is more reminiscent of the stock camera app on the Nexus 5 – simple, just the way Google intended it to be. On its left hand-side 1 new feature is given top billing. When turned on, “Focus Select” mode allows you to adjust which portion of the photo is in focus after you’ve taken the photo. Pick between front focus, rear focus, and pan focus to either create an image with creamy depth of field, or one with hardly any.

Like the Note 3, the S5 can now also shoot 4K video.


Like Apple’s iPhone 5S, the S5 comes with a built-in fingerprint scanner. You can use your finger print to unlock the phone, sign-in to your Samsung account, turn on/off Private Mode and make authenticate purchases using PayPal. 

Setting up the finger print scanner takes 8 readings. To use, quickly swipe your finger from the middle-bottom part of the display onto the S5’s physical home button. In the limited time that we had with the S5, we found that readings were pretty accurate but required that your finger was centered on the home button – veering either to the left or right of the button will result in an read- error. 


In keeping with its new line of Gear 2 smart watches and the Gear Fit smartband Samsung has built in health tracking onto the S5. The smartphones comes with a Heart Rate Monitor that you can use via its S-Health application. To use you keep a finger over a sensor on the back of the phone under the camera. Also on S-Health is an Exercise option that allows you to track your runs very similar to the functionality on the Nike+ app on iOS. 


Like Sony’s line of Xperia devices, Samsung is making weather proof functionality a standard – and not an option like it did with the S4 which was offered in a water-resistant variant the S4 Active. The S5 has one port cover on the bottom of the device to cover the micro USB port, its headphone jack contains a protective membrane that prevents water from seeping through. The device has an IP67 rating and is certified water resistant and dust proof.    


Specs-wise, the S5 receives minor improvements overall. A slightly larger 5.1-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display (vs the 4.9-inch display on the S4), a 2.5GHz quad-core processor (vs 1.9GHz quad-core on the S4), the same 2GB of RAM, and a slightly better 2800 mAh battery (vs the 2600 mAh battery on the S4). 

Despite the minor bump in specs the S5 outperforms the S4 35731 to 26147 on benchmarking app Antutu. Playing videos and watching games was pretty bump-free.  


We’ll probably need more time with the S5 to say for sure whether or not it would be a phone that we’d want to switch to, or as I said in a recent piece, one I’d want to settled down with. The saying first impressions last however holds true – and while we are left disappointed by the lack of a long-overdue makeover its superior camera, fingerprint scanner and water resistance are features that will make us want to spend more time getting to know the device.

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