PROS / Boasting a superb camera, a blazing processor and an all-but-waterproof chassis, the Galaxy S5 is here to play.
CONS / We were more annoyed than impressed by its fingerprint scanner, and the device's all-plastic construction is a disappointment.
VERDICT / Potential Samsung converts be advised: You'd be hard-pressed to find a phone as well rounded as the Galaxy S5.
Fans of Samsung's Galaxy series of Android phones can usually point to three things they love about the devices: They're consistently speedy, they're packed with fun features, and they have some of the best cameras you'll find in any phone. Handily meeting all three criteria, the Galaxy S5 is the new leader of Samsung's pack. There's little a smartphone can do that the S5 can't manage, and the photos it takes are invitingly good. Unfortunately, like its previous incarnations the S5's outer construction feels depressingly cheap: Flimsy plastic and chrome paint pale in comparison to the aluminum-and-glass chasses of competing phones. But despite its looks – and as its water resistance handily proves – the S5 is perfectly sturdy. Given its wealth of power and capability, we're glad to give it our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award.
Even the best android phones are far from perfect, so we'll get the bad news out of the way: The Galaxy S5's outer design is, quite simply, a disappointment. Its stippled back cover might look soft in pictures, but it's just a hard, dimpled piece of removable plastic that's slightly too slippery in the hand. The shiny chrome edging, meanwhile, is merely a painted plastic bumper. Of course, that bumper – and the phone's plastic construction in general – helps cushion the device against falls and holds up well underwater.
The phone's design may be nothing special, but it cradles a positively gorgeous 5.1-inch, 1080p AMOLED screen. Much of the joy we got out of taking photos came explicitly from seeing them on the S5's display, which boasts superb viewing angles and rich, vibrant colors.
Between Nokia's Lumia series and Apple's iPhones, there are some great smartphones with great cameras in the world. Among top Android phones, however, few cameras stand out from the crowd. The Galaxy S5's 16-megapixel shooter is one of those few, capturing some of the crispest, richest images we've seen from a smartphone. We took it out for a spin during a hiking trip into Utah's Wasatch mountain range and were delighted with the results; look at the gallery at the top of the page to see some of our photos.
It's of note that at high zoom levels you'll start to notice some artifacting, and the front-facing camera is comparable in quality to just about every other front-facing camera on the market. But the phone's default-setting pictures look beautiful, the camera has video image stabilization, and you can even capture video at 4K resolution – though you're limited to doing so in five-minute stints, a protective measure Samsung incorporated to prevent the phone from overheating.
When it comes to battery life, the Galaxy S5 holds its own alongside some stiff competition. Many of the latest Android smartphones can make it through an entire day without skipping a beat, but the S5 handily manages two, and that's with some heavy use. We took our device hiking, listened to music, bought lunch with touchless payments, tracked our movements via GPS, and hadn't even hit the 50 percent power mark by the time we got home.
Granted, if you plan to watch video all day long or browse bright white web pages for hours on end, your mileage will reduce drastically, but you'll still be able to handle 12 solid hours of video playback. And, should you find yourself at the 10 percent mark and still have an evening's worth of activities ahead of you, Samsung's ultra-low-power mode turns the phone into a basic talking and texting device that consumes a fraction of the energy.
Clocking in at 2.5GHz, the Galaxy S5's quad-core processor is the fastest we've ever seen in a smartphone. It doesn't top out on benchmarks, but we had no problem running our test apps on it at silken frame rates. Its 2GB of RAM kept applications flowing smoothly, and though you get only 16GB or 32GB of internal storage to play with – depending on the model – the phone's microSD slot is compatible with up to 128GB expansion cards.
More than anything else, two features of the Galaxy S5 set it apart: water resistance and the device's built-in fingerprint scanner. The former is rather awesome; the latter, disappointingly useless. We've tested water-resistant phones before, but if you've never used one, prepare to be delighted: There's something relaxing about sitting down with a movie or your favorite book in the tub, not having to worry about getting it wet or even dropping it completely underwater. If you spill your drink on the phone, no worries – a quick rinse under the faucet and you'll be good to go.
We also tested the S5's fingerprint scanner as soon as we got it out of the box, and were initially impressed. Loading our prints into the phone was a simple process, and unlocking requires a mere vertical swipe of the finger. Take your time and be gentle, and the scanner works every time. That was, at least, the idea.
In everyday use, the fingerprint scanner rarely worked. We would accidentally swipe our fingers too quickly or off to one side of the scanner. When you're in line at checkout and just want to bring up your mobile wallet (one of our favorite things to do with any NFC-enabled phone), you want access to the app as quickly as possible. Nine times out of ten, we didn't use the scanner properly on either the first or second tries, and had to carefully take our time with the third lest the system lock us out completely. Should that happen, you can always unlock the phone by typing in an alphanumeric password, but it's a nuisance when you're in a rush. Three days into our testing, we threw up our hands and turned the feature off; it wasn't worth the effort.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 may not be perfect – its plastic construction and finicky fingerprint scanner elicited more than a few disappointed sighs from our staff – but that doesn't stop it from being a phenomenal phone. On processing power alone, it stands apart; add in its gorgeous display and superb camera, and we were sold. Samsung might not be your cup of tea, and that's fine, but if you're even on the fence about picking one up, you'll find plenty to love about this Android device.