PROS / Its camera is phenomenal; its processor will blaze through anything you can throw at it; its chassis is functionally waterproof, so long as you don't go diving – and that's just to start.
CONS / The phone's vaunted fingerprint scanner is too much of a nuisance to actually use, while its all-plastic construction feels as cheap and flimsy as ever.
VERDICT / It might not be as outwardly flashy as the iPhone or HTC One, but Samsung's Galaxy S5 pulls no punches under the hood.
Every smartphone buyer in America has at least heard of the Samsung Galaxy S line. With almost as much brand recognition as Apple's iPhone, the Galaxys have long since built a reputation – and a devout following – for flagship-level performance and crazy-fun features. Granted, those features aren't always home runs, and from tilt scrolling to air gestures, there might be more misses than hits in the bag. But underneath all the glitzy flash rests a champion phone with the display, the camera, the processor and the battery life to take on any competitor. Regardless of whether its all-plastic design is our cup of tea (spoiler: it's not), we can't deny the sheer capability of the Galaxy S5.
As forward-thinking as Galaxy phones tend to be when it comes to software features, Samsung's refusal to update its phone's external design to something other than plastic is downright disappointing, and marks the one thing we wish we could change about the S5. Apple and HTC are building aluminum-and-glass phones because the metal's heft, structural support and dashing good looks justify the bump in manufacturing price. Even LG is starting to use aluminum in its top smartphones, and Nokia's soft-touch polycarbonate can feel luxurious.
Then there's the Galaxy S5, with its stippled plastic cover and faux-chrome edging. The slipperiness of that plastic all but demands a protective case, lest the phone slide right out of your hands – though don't get us wrong, the device is plenty durable on its own. Its removable back cover feels nice enough on your hands, but it creaked every time we touched it, despite being fully snapped into place. Trust us; we checked several times.
Is it a deal-breaker? Not at all. Frankly, we stopped noticing the build quality issues after the first day, accepting them and moving on. But where you might lovingly show off other phones for their good looks alone, the joys of the Galaxy S5 are all hidden away. We still love the phone. We're just disappointed with its aesthetics.
Like we said, the Galaxy S5's outsides may be nothing special, but its insides sell it. The quality of its camera was perhaps the most welcome surprise we experienced – this is a shooter that'll impress. Check out the photo gallery at the top of the page to see some of the pictures we took on an evening hiking trip into Utah's Wasatch Mountains; every shot we captured made us smile at the S5's performance.
In terms of raw specs, the camera offers what we'd expect from the best smartphone Samsung sells. The 16-megapixel rear-facing lens with an ƒ/2.2 aperture can take great photos, but it can also capture video at up to 4K resolution. Unfortunately, the 5-minute restriction of past devices is still present – you won't be able to capture more than 5 minutes of ultra-HD video before the phone stops you, a measure put in to keep the components from overheating.
Measuring things on clock speed alone, the Galaxy S5 boasts one of the fastest processors we've seen in a phone: a sprinting 2.5GHz chip. It is, otherwise, rather straightforward: four cores, 2GB of RAM, either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, and an SD slot that can take up to a 128GB microSD card. Our scaled benchmark results show it lagging behind Apple's latest, but our experience tells us that the Galaxy S5 will handily stride through whatever apps you want to run. Its interface animations were cashmere-soft, and while it did stutter once or twice in one of the settings menus, we're pretty sure it's more an issue with TouchWiz – Samsung's custom Android – than anything else.
A flagship phone requires flagship-level battery life, and the Galaxy S5 competes with gusto. Though it doesn't quite have the longevity of one of LG's latest phones, it still lasted us two solid days of heavy use without charging up – more than enough to stop us worrying about whether we'll have enough juice to carry us through an outing. The phone's extreme power-saving mode provides an extra buffer should you find yourself extremely low and need guaranteed phone and text uptime.
If you're in the market for a Galaxy S5, you're probably interested in hearing about two things: the fingerprint scanner and the device's water resistance. Sure, the S5 also sports plenty of other features (NFC being our favorite – there's something about being able to tap your phone to a pad and pay for a meal that makes us wonder why credit cards are still a thing), but they aren't the selling points.
For its part, the fingerprint scanner was a profound disappointment. It works fine if you use it precisely, sliding your finger smoothly down the center of the Home button. In practice, however, we kept wanting to whip the phone out and check something, only to run into a scanner that refused to let us past the lock screen. After just a few missed attempts – easy to trample through if you're in a rush – you'll have to enter a full password to get access to your phone. If you're in the checkout line and you just want to access your Google or Isis wallet, that delay can be maddening. After just a few days using the scanner, we threw up our hands and turned it off.
The fingerprint scanner might be a miss, but having an all-but-waterproof smartphone is a joy. Being able to take your phone into the shower and listen to music, check your twitter feed or read over emails is surprisingly fun, even if the phone's touchscreen controls don't actually work underwater. In theory, the device is rated for submersion under a meter of water for 30 minutes. In practice, you can drop your phone into the pool, dive in and bring it back to the surface, and you shouldn't suffer any ill effects. Get a bit of ketchup on your phone? Rinse it off in the sink and you'll be good to go.
Nobody hasn't heard of the Samsung Galaxy S5. Arguably the most popular Android-based brand in the world, the Galaxy series of smartphones has long commanded respect and loyalty. It isn't known for its dashing good looks – and indeed, we wish Samsung had opted for a nicer chassis over its sub-par fingerprint scanner – but the resulting device is still every bit as impressive as you'd expect from a Samsung flagship. We review a lot of smartphones; right now, the Galaxy S5 is our top pick.