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Samsung Galaxy S5 review: Flagship smartphone doesn't match up to rivals

Samsung is a giant and key player in the Android smartphone market so here's our Samsung Galaxy S5 review. See also: best smartphones

The Korean giant has been hugely successful with its flagship Galaxy S range of smartphones but can the latest edition hold its own against stiff competition. The Phone 5S remains a great handset and HTC has impressed with the new HTC One M8. There's also competition from the Sony Xperia Z2 and the LG G3 is coming very soon. And let's not forget Google's own Nexus 5 and the freshly announced Huawei Ascend P7 either. 

The Galaxy S5 retains that recognisable Samsung look which means not much has changed compared to previous generations and, for that matter, other Galaxy devices. The S5 looks a lot like the Galaxy Note 3 which is a shame because it really requires its own style as a flagship device. Unfortunately it's bigger, squarer and more boring than the Galaxy S4.

It also doesn't feel like a premium smartphone in the hand. A 'perforated' rear cover supposedly makes it feel more natural but we just don't see the benefit here. It does feel nice and soft to the touch and has a nice grip to it but reminds us of that 3D style wallpaper you can get for your walls (that's bad).

The plastic build quality, including a tacky looking fake chrome frame, around the edge, is our main disappointment with the Galaxy S5. A flagship phone just shouldn't be this plastic fantastic.

A huge design change is that Samsung has added dust and water resistant credentials. That's something which Sony has been offering for a while now in its Xperia range. The Galaxy S5 has an IP67 rating which means it will happily get wet, even submersed in water, without frazzling inside and is completely sealed from dust particles (see the video below of this in action).

However, you'll need to make doubly sure that the microUSB port cover is on and the rear cover is perfectly clipped into place. I'm sure a number of users will get an unwanted surprise when the gaps aren't completely covered since it needs to clip in properly in a total of nearly 20 places around the edge.

Samsung has decided to go against the trend of on-screen navigations buttons and stuck with its physical home button with a touch-sensitive counterparts either side. Instead of the previously used menu, we now have recent apps. The physical button is fine and houses the fingerprint scanner (see hardware) but the other two, particularly the back button, are hard to reach.

The Galaxy S5 comes in four colours at launch – black, white (as you might expect) plus blue and something called 'copper gold'. At launch Vodafone has the network exclusive on the gold model.

Inside the Galaxy S5 is the kind of high-end specs you'd want to find in a flagship. Like rival devices, the handset has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor which is quad-core but clocked a little higher at 2.5GHz. This is accompanied by a now standard 2GB of RAM, although a handful of devices do have more.

We've hit a point where flagship smartphone offer excellent performance – it almost goes without saying. They're all running of powerful and efficient processors so we're not surprised to find the Galaxy S5 nippy in day-to-day performance but it's not flawless.

For starters, there is a slight delay between pressing the power or home button and the lockscreen appearing and the same is true when hitting the recent apps button. There's also the fact that the camera app takes a good few seconds to launch and quitting to the homescreen from apps doesn't happen straight away. These are minor gripes but the Galaxy S5 seems slow in these areas compares to rivals which can do these tasks seemingly instantaneously.

We take benchmarking results with a pinch of salt since it emerged that some manufacturers use benchmarking boosting software. However, in Geekbench 3 the Samsung Galaxy S5 scored 926 points in the single-core test, and 2869 points in the multi-core test. In SunSpider we recorded 824ms, and in GFXBench's T-Rex test the Galaxy S5 managed 28fps.

The Galaxy S5 is available in either 16- or 32GB capacities, although it seems to be a classic situation where the larger of the two is like a super rare Pokémon. A microSD card supporting up to 64GB is almost a given nowadays but the Galaxy S5 can take double that at 128GB. Like other Samsung smartphones, the Galaxy S5 also offers 50GB of free Dropbox cloud storage.

It's a good job there is plenty of storage options because like the Galaxy S4, a lot of the Galaxy S5's internal storage is used up before you've even downloaded an app. Our 16GB has just under 10GB available which is less than average.

Despite numerous rumours of a 5.25in screen, the Galaxy S5's display is only marginally larger than the Galaxy S4's. It's 5.1in and if you were hoping for a new crazy high resolution then you might be disappointed to find out that the Galaxy S5 has a now very standard Full HD display - we were expecting the next generation of technology so can't help but feel a little disappointed.

Nevertheless, the display does look brilliant on a number of levels. Of course, it's still Super AMOLED as you would expect from Samsung so colours are vivid and pop out at you and contrast is good, too. As you might presume, the Galaxy S5 offers excellent viewing angles.

The Galaxy S5's display performs better than most outdoors and we found we rarely need to up the brightness to gain visibility. Maximum brightness is good and about level with what we're using to seeing but it's worth noting that the display goes exceptionally dark which could be handy for saving battery or situations like reading in the dark. A handy brightness slider resides in the notification bar but it can be switched off if you prefer.

Smart stay is carried over from the Galaxy S4 and keeps the screen from switching off as long as you're looking at it. By default, the screen is set 'adapt display' which automatically adjust elements like colour gamut, white tone and contrast but you can use other modes which tweak the settings if you prefer: Dynamic, Standard, Professional photo and Cinema.

Flagship smartphones are generally large these days so we're talking 5in and above. This makes them difficult to use one-handed but Samsung has included a special mode which you can enable in the settings menu. A quick swipe into the middle of the screen and back out will launch the one-handed mode. Here you can adjust the size of the interface so it's easy to reach. It's a bit strange but we can see it being helpful to some users.

A key hardware addition is a fingerprint scanner. It's keeping up with the Jones' here since the iPhone 5s has one. The Galaxy S5's is also built into the home button but you have to swipe your finger across it. You can register up to three fingerprints and need to set a backup password because there's a five attempt limit on using your paws to unlock the device.

In general, the fingerprint scanner is accurate at reading your print but swiping your digits across it in the correct manner is awkward to do one-handed which is quite annoying. Unless you hold it with one hand and use your other hand to swipe, you'll quickly hit the attempt limit. Messages like 'swipe over the centre' and 'swipe the entire pad' are a little too common.

As well as unlocking the Galaxy S5 with your finger, you can use your precious print to authorise you Samsung account instead of typing in a password. The same is true of PayPal payments so this does make things quicker and more secure. Furthermore, it can be used to launch a private mode (see software).

Samsung has successfully added new features to the Galaxy S5, but this is one which might sound cool but isn't something most users will find to be an actual benefit.

Below the camera is a flash but also a heart rate monitor, making the Galaxy S5 the first smartphone to come with the feature. Place your finger on the sensor and it can read your heart rate in a matter of seconds. It's integrated into the S Health app and while it's a novelty to check your pulse a few times, realistically it's something only enthusiasts are going to use regularly.

We feel it's the kind of tech which is better reserved for smartwatches and fitness trackers. It seems more like Samsung has added it just to tick a 'new feature' box on a check list.

It's also worth noting that the S Health app also keeps track of your daily step count without a wrist band or similar additional gadget, so the Galaxy S5 is keeping up with rivals on this front – namely the iPhone 5s and HTC One M8.

Wireless connectivity is all pretty up-to-date with 11ac Wi-Fi (MIMO), NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, an infrared transmitter, and the latest 4G technology. Samsung has fitted the Galaxy S5 with Cat 4 LTE supporting eight bands and a download booster which uses your Wi-Fi connection combine with mobile data to give you a theoretical max download speed of 400Mbps.

Unfortunately wireless charging is not something which is built-in – look to Nokia's high end devices and Google's Nexus 5 for this. However, a charging cover will be available to add this facility.



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